Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"Wait until it is night before saying that it has been a fine day."
~ French Proverb

Song of the Day:
UB40, "One In Ten"

Happy Birthday:
Ted Danson
Charles Goodyear
Andrew Johnson
Jude Law
Mary Tyler Moore

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Tim Schnabel reports on a change in the exam-taking policies at YLS. He's on a mini-campaign to reverse the change.
Quote of the Day:
"The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights."
~ J. Paul Getty

Song of the Day:
Genesis, "Invisible Touch"

Happy Birthday:
Denzel Washington
Woodrow Wilson
This chilling article from Legal Affairs about the Amish may make you question what you think about parental and religious rights.

And this account of a seafaring culture starving itself to death instead of eating fish is simply fascinating.

(Both links via Andrew Sullivan.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

"The peasant is stung"

The Weekly Standard reports on a new blog called left2right. Twenty-six left-leaning university professors formed to the blog to strategize about how the left should attempt to speak to red Americans.

They may want to work on their tone, for starters. Here's a left2right posting by K. Anthony Appiah on why ordinary Americans resent academic elites:

Some of those right-wing evangelicals apparently care whether or not we have a good opinion of them. (If they didn't, the resentment they display toward the "liberal media" would make no sense.) Whereas I know no one among the liberal media elite or among liberal academics who cares very much that many right-wing evangelicals have contempt for us. We care how they vote--for instrumental reasons; we may even care that they are mistaken, for their sakes; but we don't feel diminished by their contempt. . . . (The situation is analogous to the one that obtains with respect to social respect in class-and status-based hierarchies: a peasant can spit when milord walks by, but it won't damage his lordship's self-esteem. But when milord brings his handkerchief to his nose as the peasant approaches, the peasant is stung.)
Ross Douthat sums it up nicely: "With intellectual enemies like these, do conservatives really need friends?"

Monday, December 20, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar."
~ Oscar Wilde

Song of the Day:
"The Little Drummer Boy"

Happy Birthday:
Uri Geller
Harvey Firestone
A useful article in the Public Interest on women's choices separates today's women into four categories based on the number of children they have:

"traditional" = 3
"neo-traditional" = 2
"modern" = 1
"postmodern" = none

The author argues that the types of public policies we tinker with today really only affect the middle two.
Charles Krauthammer, who is Jewish, defends Christmas:

I'm struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas creche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public. They are enlarged by it.

It is the more deracinated members of religious minorities, brought up largely ignorant of their own traditions, whose religious identity is so tenuous that they feel the need to be constantly on guard against displays of other religions -- and who think the solution to their predicament is to prevent the other guy from displaying his religion, rather than learning a bit about their own.
Michelle Cottle weighs in here on the annual Christmas-versus-holidays debate (registration required).

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Decline of common courtesy.

My father's been looking for a job -- for about six months now. He sends away resumes and on occasion will get an interview. On more than one occasion -- in fact, all of the six or seven -- he has had the interview and then never heard anything more from the company. He'll call them and they won't call back. He'll email, and they'll just ignore him. On one occasion, the company told him they would set up a tele-interview on a certain date. As the date neared, they never got in touch with him. He called, and they didn't call back. The date came and went ... nothing.

Now, I'm not saying that he should receive responses from the folks who decide not even to interview him. What I am saying, however, is WHAT THE HELL? Perhaps these people think they do my father a favor by never rejecting him. But, of course, they don't. Rather, they simply allow his false hope to continue on, and fester. Perhaps they're just wimps. They can't do it, and it's easier just to ignore it. But that would be deeply ironic, wouldn't it? In a day and age when communication is SO easy, we have gone completely in the opposite direction. Maybe it's just a decline in common courtesy and personal responsibility. That's what I think, but then, I may be biased by my more general belief that the world has gone to pot. But that, too, is interesting, at a time when the relative number of people working in the service industry is at an all time high.

Anyway, I don't understand it. But it's pissing me off.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Movie Review

Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea: His Bad

In the TV series Wiseguy (1988) and the movies The Ref (1994), Swimming with Sharks (1995), The Usual Suspects (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), and American Beauty (1999), Kevin Spacey seemed immune to the sentimental weaknesses of common human feeling, and in him it came across as heroic. He could be unlikeable, wrongheaded, corrupt, even sociopathic, but his ringing theatrical confidence made you want more of the same. (He had panache even when he played, or the character just pretended to be, vulnerable.) He was kind of stiff but physically imposing because his body was backed up by that sense of command and impenetrable attitude. No American actor had ever been more formidable in confrontations, and you didn't care if he was a good or evil knight, you just wanted to see the bullets bounce off his armor.

Spacey hasn't lost his skills but he seems to have lost his way. Of course, there were, and still are, limitations to what he's so good at. He was unremarkable as a conventional action-picture hero in The Negotiator (1998) because his heroism is essentially ironic, combative--contempt is the lightning that gives his monsters life. In addition, he's so much more verbal than physical an actor that he presents a figure of potency without eroticism. Which is to say he doesn't really work opposite women. (In The Ref he and Judy Davis compete against each other's high-comedy skills with amazing snap but they play a divorcing couple so the dissonance between them makes sense; they don't have to meld entirely. Click here for my full-length review.) He can be so enviably scary in conflict it's hard to imagine what he could relax into if he ever let his guard down. He's a magnificently skilled technician but more than slightly monolithic. That is to say, Spacey's undeniable charisma is undeniably cold.

Not to mention, the sentimentality that refuses to stick to Spacey's surface is generally essential to stardom in American movies. I believe when he went after a wider audience in 2000 he did it out of a sincere desire to connect, to avoid being cast in concrete as the most impervious, rebarbative, isolated of men, however sensationally gifted. You can't blame a guy for trying something new, but nobody is given every kind of talent. This shouldn't be read as a manifesto in favor of typecasting, but some of the greatest movie stars had relatively limited ranges precisely because of the intensity of their personalities--James Cagney and Bette Davis are perhaps the clearest examples.

Toward the end of L.A. Confidential and about half-way through American Beauty Spacey's characters reform, become more like "us." And in both movies he's killed, as if the makers couldn't imagine what purpose a softened Spacey could serve. American Beauty also makes the mistake of justifying his extreme acidulousness--it's his wife's fault, society's fault, suburbia, homophobia. Once he burns past his disdain he goes gooey--and he hasn't looked back since.

In Pay It Forward (2000), K-PAX (2001), The Shipping News (2001), and The Life of David Gale (2003), Spacey moved to the opposite end of the range from the persona that had made him stand tall: his characters are inexperienced, frustrated, manipulable, hurting, alienated, scarred, waxy, numb, tongue-tied, sad-eyed. Bette Davis memorably played a victim of bad parenting in Now, Voyager, but think how much earlier in that picture she got her extreme makeover and became "herself" than Spacey develops brave-boy gumption in The Shipping News. The ranting drunk scenes of David Gale might have been an avenue of development but they get lost in the movie's inept, preposterous combination of philosophical-legal tidbittery and overingenious crime plotting.

Spacey is theater veteran enough to know there's a calculus as to how far a star can stray beyond audience expectations. I hope at least that K-PAX and David Gale have persuaded him that nobody wants to hear baby talk from him (unless to make fun of someone, preferably to his face). And he should definitely swear off tender sex scenes with a trembly inexperienced lover, whether he's the trembler (Pay It Forward, The Shipping News) or the actress opposite him is (American Beauty, The Life of David Gale, and the new Beyond the Sea). From Pay It Forward on, Spacey has failed to build on his coterie rooting section, which, by the same stroke, he has managed to disperse. He's convinced us he's not really cold; the perhaps unintended upshot is that he isn't cool anymore, either.

There are still plenty of great roles solidly in Spacey's main line: Has any American actor, ever, been better suited by temperament to play Coriolanus? And he's so good opposite Judy Davis in The Ref that it's painfully tantalizing to imagine them going at it as Beatrice and Benedick. Instead, his new starring vehicle Beyond the Sea, which he also co-produced and directed, and in which he sings and dances, is a biopic of the pop singer Bobby Darin. Spacey doesn't invoke the pathos of his previous four movies, although Darin lived to see his headlining career dry up before he died young of heart failure due to childhood rheumatic fever. But neither does he return to his mode as ironic "hero." He plays the Bobby Darin story as straight heroics. Yes, Bobby Darin.

Born in 1936, Darin came to nightclub singing in the late '50s, at about the last possible minute, after rock 'n' roll had already siphoned off the younger audience. But Darin implemented the "jazzy" stylings of more accomplished artists alongside some rockabilly yips and yodels in such an affectedly informal, slick way he was able to concoct a string of adult-teen hits, including his signature song "Mack the Knife."

Lest anyone forget, the original "Mack the Knife," with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (from their 1928 German musical Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), a quintessentially Weimar-era modernization of John Gay's satirical 1728 London smash The Beggar's Opera), is about a thief and murderer. Weill's music sounds like something ground out by a mournful strolling organ-grinder, a sound that plays off the lyrics' blandly sinister coyness about Macheath's evasion of detection. Ramped up to swingin' speed, Darin's version sounds as if he were singing about a raffish movie star making a triumphant return to Tinsel Town ("Look out, ol' Mackie's back!"), with the ladies lined up and waiting. In possibly the crudest move of all, Darin includes among those ladies "Miss Lotte Len-YA," Weill's wife and one of the musical's original Berlin stars.

Darin used flashy techniques for maximum effect, with minimum inspiration and aesthetic investment. His catalogue is a fool's-goldmine of variation without invention. And "Mack the Knife" isn't the most jaw-dropping among the nuggets. That would have to be "Artificial Flowers," which tells a story that combines "The Little Match Girl" and La Bohème in a ludicrously inappropriate style, both lachrymose and coked-out on rhythm. (I love "Artificial Flowers" but not as a model of artistry.) Darin's specialty was his undoing once the counterculture got underway; by the '70s Steve Martin included "Mack the Knife" in his stage act as the ultimate symbol of gaudy show biz insincerity, automatically good for a laugh.

Darin made movies, too, and on the set of Come September he met another plastic icon of the era, Sandra Dee, the peroxide-blonde, baby-fat starlet of Gidget, Imitation of Life, and A Summer Place. (And likewise a butt of '70s wise-ass satire, in the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" from Grease.) The two married when Dee was either 16 or 18, depending on your source. Dee was considerably less talented than Darin and apparently more troubled, and her career was over by time they divorced in 1967, when she was about 25.

What Kevin Spacey sees in this material is mystifying. If he wanted to make a musical why didn't he make a version of The Threepenny Opera itself, or The Beggar's Opera? Or if he wanted to sing American pop standards then how about a version of Pal Joey, one faithful to John O'Hara's antiheroic conception and the original Rodgers & Hart score (unlike the Frank Sinatra botch from 1957)? The lead roles in those shows are squarely within his range, and I don't just mean age range. (Spacey, now 45, plays Darin from his early 20s until his death at age 37.) He's way too saturnine to play a young man hopped-up on ambition (although his regression to a cocky teen made for the best of his hypnotism sessions in K-PAX).

Spacey has referred to Darin as a "hero" of his, but what we see Darin do in the movie is more driven than heroic, more instinctual than principled. In Beyond the Sea Spacey has left his trademark irony so far behind that the booze-soaked, teenaged Darin-Dee romance plays as momentously ill-fated, something like Darin's snappy rendition of Tristan und Isolde. What's weird is that the movie in its random way shapes Darin and Dee's marital troubles for irony, when, for instance, Sandy is miffed because Bobby has a bigger magazine spread than she does, or when Bobby's tantrum on the night he failed to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar leads to a contest between the couple to see who can pack a suitcase faster and leave the other one first. But this irony doesn't lead to anything--they're still the Bobby Darin and the Sandra Dee to starstruck Kevin Spacey.

Perhaps Spacey sees as heroic how Darin spends his free time when his career stalls after the British Invasion and the Summer of Love: he campaigns for Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and protests the Vietnam War. The camp highlight of Beyond the Sea for me was when Darin, reading the Los Angeles Times in the late '60s, writes "DON'T WANT A WAR!" underline, underline, underline above an announced troop deployment and then draws an X over Lyndon Johnson's face. I'm afraid this is the sort of thing Sandra Dee is referring to later in the movie when she apologizes to Darin for not being an "intellectual" like him.

The problem isn't that Spacey is bad at anything he does as a performer here. He can sing and he imitates Darin's tricks impeccably (which means, however, that the soundtrack is impeccably, reverently, replicated slop). Spacey is good enough that I thought he should have played Dennis Potter's Singing Detective last year because, unlike Robert Downey, Jr., he has the vituperative, rhetorical delivery necessary to hold the piece together. Rather, the problem with Beyond the Sea is the choice of material--and not just Darin but the biopic formula itself. As director, Spacey uses a relatively user-friendly "avant-garde" framing device, like the one in the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely (click here for my review), and it should have made him think: Was there something about the enterprise he was embarrassed to present straight?

With Cole Porter, once you hear the songs, objections subside. You know why they made the movie. With Bobby Darin, the material could have been handled sympathetically and still shaped for irony by presenting him as a cocky kid with show biz push who made such a mark so young he got trapped in his successful career. This is a readily generalizable form of irony: be careful what you wish for, especially when you're an adolescent. The Darin we see is super eager for experience the way all kids are, precisely because they lack it and are too young to know, or care, that only experience could guide them wisely so they'd better slow down. Darin's great good luck was bad luck, too, his career made and unmade by the same stroke of artistic "genius" on his part.

The movie does show Darin himself coming to prefer counterculture-era music. But then it also shows him overcoming a bad experience with an acoustic set at The Copacabana by razzing the same anti-war song up with a gospel choir on a stage in Vegas. In other words, Darin figures out how to put the new music over in Vegas the way he had figured out how to put the old music over in nightclubs. I wish Spacey were less like Bobby Darin and more like Coriolanus, i.e., more resistant to giving the audience what they want. It's doubly a drag because now that Spacey has gone soft who else is there with comparable comedy skills who doesn't care first and foremost about being liked? Catherine Keener, Bill Murray, our ironist emeritus, and that's about it.

You can't get much more Hollywood than a movie about a performer in which success is synonymous with quality. But the movie is only tin on the outside. Kevin Spacey apparently thinks of Darin as a genuinely great performer. It's no surprise that Beyond the Sea has won this unqualified endorsement from Darin and Dee's son on the official Bobby Darin website. It's the kind of movie a doting mother couldn't have improved on had she made it herself.

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

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Advice for the Democrats from George Will and New Donkey.

The KC has been preparing for Christmas this weekend -- shopping, cleaning, making grocery lists, wrapping presents, listening to Handel.

In other news, on Wednesday Lily and I had dinner with Alan, who amazes us by continuing to produce thoughtful movie reviews while practicing law full-time.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on the Yale Daily News Condoleeza column. The Daily ran an excellent response column this past Friday. David Katsen, a freshman at Yale College, writes
The idea that one's ethnicity should be a litmus test on one's belief is laughable and offensive. What's the point of having a two-party system, then? Why not just conduct a census every four years?

The real issue here isn't the purported intolerance of the Republican Party, but rather the very real intolerance demonstrated by Ms. Olopade. The Yale community should be receptive of views that break our expectations and should seek a more complex, nuanced view of political opinion than simple stereotyping. Perhaps Ms. Rice's atypical political beliefs should be given thoughtful consideration, instead of knee-jerk dismissal.

Last time I checked, classifying people solely by the basis of their skin color is racism. Does Ms. Olopade disagree?
Well said. I'm glad Yale still admits some students who have half a brain.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Movie Review

Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers: Duel in the Chinese Sun

Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers takes place toward the end of the Tang Dynasty in 859 AD when the government is hunting down a band of outlaws who, like Robin Hood, steal from the rich to give to the poor. (The outlaws call themselves the House of Flying Daggers in honor of their weapons, which have directional skills I associate with a much more advanced state of technology.) Movie critics get the historical specifics from press releases handed out at screenings. They probably won't mean much to American audiences, and in any case the movie itself doesn't make much of them. In fact, House of Flying Daggers has so few characters it lacks the epic breadth of the average Robin Hood movie (in which brothers battling for the throne of England are major characters).

House of Flying Daggers has the highly-colored splash and violence of a spectacle, but a very compact narrative. Jin (Takeshi Kineshiro), a government agent, and Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a woman from the House of Flying Daggers, disguise themselves in order to seduce each other in mutually opposed attempts at infiltration, entrapment, ambush. Both plans work but Jin and Mei also fall in love with each other, which screws everything up. We never find out what the political outcome is; the movie concentrates increasingly on the complications between Jin and Mei, as well as Mei's other paramour, also a double agent.

The story is in the wuxia tradition, a longstanding form of Chinese narrative which has had a recent efflorescence and has become known to American audiences from Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Click here for a more concise Wikipedia entry and here for a more in-depth one.) Whether or not you can place them historically, the cultural details, including weaponry, styles of fighting, music, and costume are, of course, Chinese, but the structure of the wuxia genre is analogous to European medieval romance, in which heroes engage in martial adventures and resist temptations while pursuing a quest that embodies a larger (national or spiritual) ideal. The narrative of House of Flying Daggers can thus be described as a double chivalric romance, one with a nifty, ironic twist: for Jin and Mei, unbeatable as fighting knights but defenseless as undercover lovers, quest and temptation are the same thing.

The script for Hero, Yimou's previous period martial romance, was considerably more complicated, involving as it did successive explanations of the same situation. Keeping track of how the story changed each time and of what the narrator was trying to accomplish with each version made the time fly. There are plenty of action set-pieces in House of Flying Daggers but the resolute focus on Jin and Mei makes it feel quite drawn out.

It's especially draggy because Yimou directs the actors as if the story were tragedy. Despite manifest artificiality in the plot, the fight choreography, and even the sound design, he lingers over the stylized emotions as if the characters' crazy romantic entanglements could have the impact of a naturalistically developed story. House of Flying Daggers is less varied in tone than, say, Ariosto's Orlando furioso, in which feverish emotional patches involving male and female knights who have fallen in love across enemy lines alternate with jaunty heroics, pitched battles, mad fantasy, and woozy ribaldry, in a patently sophisticated pageant. The self-serious emotionalism in House of Flying Daggers is as florid but shallow-rooted as in night-time soap opera, and doesn't even accommodate soap opera's diverting flirtation with self-parody. Don't look for much self-awareness or any humor in Yimou's "operatic" treatment. You'd have to react a lot more readily than I do to movie romance to go for this.

The movie places a lot of emphasis on style and some of it is certainly gorgeous, especially Mei's dance at the beginning when she's introduced as a blind courtesan in a brothel. (Zhang has the sightless porcelain-doll look down cold and manages at the same time to seem intent, flushed.) Highlights also include a challenge referred to as the Echo Game, in which Mei stands within a circle of upright drums which she has to strike with the tentacle-like sleeves of her robe in the same order as they're struck by pebbles, and an ambush in a bamboo forest that could have been carved from jade.

Yimou, however, suffers the classic old Hollywood confusion between beautiful cinematography and ordinary photography of beautiful objects and settings. He simply lacks adequate mastery of moviemaking technique. His use of wire work and special effects is downright clumsy. He resorts to slow motion in the middle of breathless action sequences so we won't miss the impossible stunts being faked, and not only does this make them look even more fake it hobbles the rhythm of the action, which rushes and halts, rushes and halts.

In addition, Yimou fundamentally overrelies on action. Jin can't just pick a posey for Mei in a field of wild flowers, he has to gather it while galloping full speed. But Yimou intercuts shots of Jin leaning over from his horse so awkwardly that the effect, which would be questionable if it worked (because it's so obviously trying to lay us flat with romantic excess), is maladroit as well as unnecessary.

House of Flying Daggers has about a tenth the story of Hero but attempts to be even more unremittingly thunderous and rapturous. For my taste, the sense of wonder Yimou strains for would be seriously hampered by his lack of humor even if he were one of the great stylists of movie history. It's an impressive undertaking, to combine music and dance, sumptuous visual design, violent action, and impossible passions, all of them beaten to stiff peaks. But the material is kitsch. Whether the movie works for you or not in its terms, I don't see how it can be rated higher than as a Chinese equivalent of David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946), minus the unintentional horselaughs (and Lillian Gish). Unflaggingly earnest red-blooded romance isn't necessarily an improvement over helpless camp.

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

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Jeopardy King lost. But along the way, he gave us quite a ride, including this amusing occurrence:
Jennings plowed through questions with voracity and occasional delight, his wrong answers often more entertaining than the right ones, like the time the clue board asked for a word that can describe either a garden tool or a person of immoral character.
"What is a ho?" Jennings responded.
"A rake," host Alex Trebek sputtered through laughter.
He should have gotten half-credit.
Connecticut is a state gone mad.

A few weeks ago, the Hartford Courant published this piece that makes me embarrassed to be a Yale alum. Ian Solomon, an associate dean at the law school, had this op-ed run. Perhaps the most aggravating part comes right after he's talked about how he went down to act as a legal observer in Florida for the past presidential election:
I was shocked when the official election results started coming in so different from historically reliable exit poll results and my own gut sense of the results in Florida.
Never mind the absurdity of insisting that exit poll results were "historically reliable" in the face of exit poll incompetency during the 2000 and 2002 elections. Let's just look at the last part of the sentence. He was "shocked" when the official election results were different from "his own gut sense of the results in Florida." I am utterly embarrassed that an associate dean at my alma mater would make such a sophomoric statement. If you haven't noticed, my dear dean, Florida is a VERY BIG STATE. No one with half a brain should be saying in public that they put any stock in their own gut sense of the results for an entire state, especially one the size of Florida. The fact that you acted as an election observer at one polling booth, or in one county, does not give you a "gut sense" about the results for the whole state -- or should it even give you a "gut sense" for the place for which you observed (unless you were sneaking peeks at people's ballots) -- that has any validity whatsoever. Certainly not enough validity to warrant you asserting in a nationally read newspaper that you were "shocked" when empirical data conflicted with that "gut" sense.

The other bit of Connecticut media madness also stems from Yale, sadly enough. The Yale Daily News ran an over-the-top rendition on a tired old theme. A poor version of the absurd argument that Condoleeza Rice somehow is "not black" or not "authentically black." I won't take the time to counter the assertion that race should somehow be tied to political ideology. It hardly seems worth the space or energy. What I will point out, however, are some of the more ridiculous assertions in the piece.

She refers to "White House Counsel" as a "fishy" title. And she, a sophomore in college, attacks the foreign policy qualifications of the woman who has been National Security Advisor on a foreign policy oriented administration for the past four years.

What has happened to the world?