31 March 2004

Dogville is a major work by a major director, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. That said, this is going to sound an awful lot like a negative review, and maybe it is:

Dogville is less painful but more offensive than Dancer in the Dark (which I think is one of the best of all recent films). The difference, I think, involves the director's willingness to subject himself, as well as his audience, to the ordeal of his own movie. Both Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark were films that could be terrifically cruel to their actors and viewers, but there was also the exhilarating sense in both that von Trier was putting his own soul on the line, that he was intentionally going off the map and pushing against the bounds of his own sanity, along with Bjork's and Emily Watson's. Maybe the experience wore him out, because Dogville, while undeniably amazing, is curiously free of risk. Von Trier is outside his movie, indifferent, paring his nails. Everything is as neat as mathematics.

This seems to have rubbed off on the cast. By all accounts, Bjork lived her role in Dancer in the Dark; the actors in Dogville, by contrast, come off as members of a very good repertory theater company. Nicole Kidman, like her former husband, is too smart and driven to seem convincingly vulnerable onscreen. Only Patricia Clarkson, in a couple of scenes as an embittered housewife, manages to break through Von Trier's cold, clinical algebra lesson. And yet...it wouldn't surprise me if, a decade from now, Dogville is the only movie from this year that I even remember. I can't exactly recommend it, but I can't stop thinking about it, either. I still think that Lars von Trier, along with Wong Kar-Wai, is the most interesting director in the world today, and Dogville will long stand as one of those inexplicable tourist attractions of the cinema that put most other movies to shame.

Should you bother seeing it? All I can say is this: if you ever end up in a theater where Dogville is being shown, you might want to take a seat, and be sure to sit through to the very end. Whether or not you end up in that theater in the first place, of course, is entirely your own business.
Oh, and if you've ever wanted some unbiased reporting on Richard Clarke, try this article from the Washington Post on the occasion of his retirement around a year ago.
Apparently, I've unknowingly contributed to a major nationwide media-caused trend: poker playing at universities.

30 March 2004

There are a number of script reviews available online for David Benioff's screenplay of Troy. (The best one is here, with another good one at FilmForce.) Judging from the reviews, this isn't Professor Nagy's Iliad. No gods, for one thing, and Patroclus is Achilles' "adoring, beloved teenage cousin." Deaths don't occur where or how you'd expect. A radical revision? Sure. But it looks like a thoughtful one, and what I've seen so far is very encouraging. (Besides, for the adaptation to be truly faithful, the dialogue would need to be subtitled, and written in a dead language. And that would just be silly.)

28 March 2004

Many thanks to Bessie for this wonderful article from The Guardian on the secret files of Stanley Kubrick. When Kubrick died, he left behind an estate filled with custom-made cardboard boxes containing the obsessively filed records of a lifetime: letters, scripts, books, discarded projects, and ghoulish mementos from the decades that he spent between films. The boxes reveal some marvelous Kubrickiana. For example:
- There is a blue room (not a red room, mind you) in Kubrick's house crammed with thousands of books and 25,000 index cards, all of them about Napoleon
- In preparation for The Shining, Kubrick obtained "just about every ghost book ever written, and there'll be a box containing photographs of the exteriors of maybe every mountain hotel in the world"
- Kubrick's favorite typeface was Futura Extra Bold. (See the opening credits of Eyes Wide Shut.)
- Kubrick kept all of his fan letters, filed by city or town of origin. Why? "It turns out that Kubrick ordered this filing in case he ever wanted to have a local cinema checked out. If 2001, say, was being screened in Daly City, California, at a cinema unknown to Kubrick, he would get Tony or one of his secretaries to telephone a fan from that town to ask them to visit the cinema to ensure that, say, the screen wasn't ripped."
Anyway, this is a great article, and it makes me want to revisit some of Kubrick's movies, which I haven't watched in a long time. Kubrick used to be my favorite director, but he's been off my radar for a while now, not because his movies aren't wonderful, but because I sensed that I was following him into an artistic cul de sac.

For young artists, Kubrick is probably the most seductive of the great directors, and one of the most dangerous. I'm reminded of what Henry James says about Tolstoy: he compares Tolstoy to an elephant, and writes, "His own case is prodigious, but his example for others is dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray." That's how I feel about Kubrick. Kubrick's genius was sui generis; only Kubrick could get away with being Kubrick, and the imitation of Kubrick only leads to cold, sterile places. (See One Hour Photo for details.)

This applies to the late Kubrick, mind you. A young director couldn't go very wrong by imitating The Killing or Lolita. But I can't imagine a watchable movie ever being made by a director whose artistic universe was circumscribed by Kubrick's last six or seven films, even though these include some of the best movies ever made.

27 March 2004

The full trailer for Troy is now online. I'm unreasonably pleased.
As for a title, I'm tempted to call my Charlie Kaufman parody Time After Time, or Annelise. This is inspired by Elvis Mitchell's charming observation that the titles of all of Kaufman's movies sound like track names from R.E.M.'s Reckoning. Letter Never Sent is also a tempting Kaufmanesque title.

Listening to Reckoning makes me feel like Noah is doing homework in the next room. There are a lot of stories connected to these songs that I've already forgotten. (I know that if Noah were in the room when "Camera" came on, he'd make an observation or tell a story that I'd heard before, but I'm damned if I can remember what it is.)

26 March 2004

My friend Allison and I are having a contest to see who can write the best parody of a Charlie Kaufman movie, so I'm trying to compile a list of the distinctive elements of his films. (A nerdy and socially inept male protagonist, a fondness for bizarre visualization of the brain's interior landscape, and a gray, depressing urban environment seem like good places to start.) Any contributions would be greatly appreciated.

25 March 2004

Movie ratings are getting weirder and weirder:

Girl With a Pearl Earring'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for shadowy sexual innuendo and suggestive situations.
I love it when movies get a real reaction out of critics. Today's review of Dogville in slate is a real doozy. It ends:

That was when I gave the movie the finger right back; I wanted to throw things at the screen. I'm sure Lars von Trier would regard me the way Col. Jessup regards the lieutenant in A Few Good Men—I can't handle the truth. But it's more like I can't handle selective half-truths by a preening, misanthropic bully who wouldn't recognize an act of decency if it bit him on the ass.
Somehow tonite while I was taking a bath I got to thinking about the following question: If I were invited to give a series of exactly 10 one hour talks on "The Great Ideas in Mathematics" what would be the ten individual titles? I really don't know how it came to mind, but here's my answer:

1. Mathematical Proof
2. Abstract Variables
3. Induction
4. Coordinate Geometry
5. The Calculus
6. Complex Numbers
7. Modulo Equivalence
8. Local/Global
9. Geometry as Functions
10. Category Theory

It was hard to leave out the Euler zeta function from that list, but hey, I was only invited to give 10.

It's strange just how different in kind many of those topics are from each other. One of those topics (1) is about what mathematics means. Two of them are just about advances in language (2 and 10). Two of them are connections between different branches of mathematics (4 and 9). One of them is just an object (6).

Anyway, if any of you ever want to invite me to give such a lecture series, I at least have the titles now...

24 March 2004

From The Onion: You Are No Longer Welcome in the Homer Reading Group. Is this really how we come off to the outside world?

23 March 2004

On a compltely different topic, this year in the NBA a winning record in the East not only gets you into the playoff, it gets you homecourt advantage for the first round! Nat's comment last year about 8 just being too many teams was completely correct.

Salon's sports writer (I'm too lazy to find the link) had an insteresting idea last year: Let the top 4 regular season teams into the playoffs and give them several weeks off while all the remaining teams have a single elimination tournament (a la NCAA) for the remaining spots (I think he just wanted 2 more spots, so it'd be like football's playoffs when you have 6 teams and one round of byes).
One last comment on the girl/woman thing. There's a badly drawn boy song called Have You Fed the Fish? which begins:

"The keys to your heart opened the door to the world.
You've got to give me two days, and woman I'll make you a girl."

And it struck me way back when I first listened to it that the equivalent line gender reversed would be a lot more likely to be "boy I'll make you a man" than "man I'll make you a boy."
I should also point out that both The Point and Allegro Non Tropo have just been released on DVD, which is great news, I think, for my unborn children, who are going to grow up on a steady diet of Chuck Jones, Bill Melendez, Hayao Miyazaki, and these two movies. Disney will probably end up in there too, especially the classic shorts, although I still have an inexplicable fondness for Sleeping Beauty.

The year's big news in home video, however, is the upcoming DVD release of On the Front Lines, a complete collection of the cartoons that Walt Disney produced during World War II. The titles alone are astonishing: Donald Gets Drafted, The Army Mascot, Private Pluto, Fall Out; Fall In, The Old Army Game, Home Defense, How to be a Sailor, Commando Duck, The Vanishing Private, Sky Trooper, Victory Vehicles, Der Fuehrer's Face, Education for Death, Reason and Emotion, Thrifty Pig, Seven Wise Dwarfs, Donald's Decision, All Together, The New Spirit, The Spirit of '43, Food Will Win the War, Out of the Frying Pan and into the Firing Line, The Grain that Built a Hemisphere, Defense Against Invasion, Cleanliness Brings Health, What is Disease?, Planning for Good Eating, Chicken Little and Winged Scourge.

Der Fuehrer's Face is the most infamous of the bunch; it was originally entitled "Donald Duck in Nutziland," and it needs to be seen to be believed.
I'm on a big Harry Nilsson kick these days. This might just be a sign of my generational ignorance, but I was recently astonished to discover that, among many other songs, Nilsson wrote "One," memorably covered by Three Dog Night, and by Aimee Mann for the opening credits of Magnolia; "Coconut," which figures in the closing credits of Reservoir Dogs; the soundtrack to The Point, which I still remember vividly after many years; and the songs for Popeye, including the sublime "He Needs Me." He also sang the version of "Everybody's Talking" that appears at the beginning of Midnight Cowboy. Looking over Nilsson’s amazing body of work, I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s response when he was told that bacon, ham, and pork chops all came from the same animal: "Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal." And that’s exactly what Nilsson is.
More response to Bessie's comments (re: use of "girl"):

In my defense:

a) I did immediately afterwards say it was something I wanted to see alone. So there wasn't any real sexism implied. I wouldn't have wanted to see it with anyone.

b) Furthermore it is a movie I would feel especially uncomfortable seeing with someone who I was possibly interested in, regardless of whether it was a "date" or not (what makes it a date anyway?). And, even though alec's implecation wasn't that he'd made plans for a date, I think it was implied that they were possible romantic interests at some point. (I mean, they're single women so by definition... umm... anyway...)

c) I don't hang out with single straight women that much, but gay males our age seem to use "boy" all the time in reference to someone they've met and are interested in. And in the few instances I can think of girls I know tend to say "I went out with this guy" There's just no female equivalent of "guy" to use. Either girl or woman has its issues. I'd feel really weird about someone saying "I saw a movie with this man the other day" and her meaning me.

22 March 2004

In response to comments to the post below:

1. No hijinx were involved. I asked A. and then hedged by asking J., because I had a hunch that A. wouldn't call back to confirm, which she didn't. Neither, unfortunately, did J.

2. Neither A. nor J. knows B.

3(a). I don't think I'll ever be able to refer to my pseudo- or robo-prospects as "women" until I can refer to myself, unironically, as a man, and I'm not quite at that point yet.

3(b). I'm notoriously bad at judging which movies are appropriate for viewing with girls. Of course, this won't be an issue when I meet the girl of my dreams, who will actually want to see Dogville this Friday. (Hmmm. I wonder what J. is doing?)
I'm really annoyed. Not only was I supposed to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on Sunday, but I made independent plans with two different girls to see it at the same time, and both stood me up. In all fairness, at least one appears to be some sort of robot.

20 March 2004

Anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone and broken up needs to go out and see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Go see it now, do not pass go, do not collect to hundred dollars, just get up, walk to the nearest theater and see it.

This film could have been Vertigo. It's not, but it really could have been. You get the feeling that you're watching half of the best film ever made interspersed with half silly inanity. (I think this Salon review captures that point.) But even with it's flaws you should all go see it.

In my old old post on "too honest greeting cards" one of them was:

[outside] Maybe someday I can change my name and we can meet again without recognizing each other and pretend that none of this ever happened.

That's what this film is about. Perhaps it's less a film that could have been Vertigo and more the "anti-Vertigo": A film that is not perfectly crafted or consistantly brilliant, but which addresses the same theme coming to the complete opposite emotional conclusion. The tragedy of Vertigo is still there, but it isn't a tragedy anymore.

Afterwards I lay on the grass in the circle by the west entrance to campus and closed my eyes trying to remember how that song from "The Little Princess" goes and realizing that it was a memory which I'd lost. And humming "oh my darling clementine, you are lost and gone forever, oh my darling clementine."
Hello from Cambridge, MA! In Berkeley it's been 80 and sunny for the last two weeks; here there's snow on the ground and it's 34. Tonight it's raining. I'm now sitting in the offices of WHRB, where I just finished doing an hour and a half of classical air. Ah, the memories. Anyway, not much has changed at our alma mater. Some things that have: the T is now $1.25; the Greenhouse has been totally renovated; PacSun has been replaced by a watch store, WHRB has a fresh coat of paint. Also, I no longer remember how to jaywalk. I had lunch today at Tanjore, which is still quite good, and I'm leaving for the North End in a few minutes.

I'll be travelling down the East Coast over the next few days; I'll give periodic updates when I can.

19 March 2004

Why isn't Haiwen doing something like this? From "The Strip Mall Revolutionaries," an article in this week's New York Times Magazine:
Traditionally, militant groups huddle in caves in the mountains, or they blindfold journalists and drive them in circles before depositing them at their leader's jungle hideout. The Cambodian Freedom Fighters (C.F.F.), a militant group dedicated to the overthrow of Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, on the other hand, meets each Saturday at 6 p.m. in an accountant's office in a strip mall in Long Beach, Calif. When I called Yasith Chhun, the group's leader, he didn't hesitate to invite me to the next meeting. "You can't miss our headquarters,'' he said. ''It's right next to the bridal shop.''

When I arrived, eight people were seated in the office. The room was crammed not only with Cambodian political paraphernalia but also with stacks of 1040 forms, evidence of Chhun's double life as a tax preparer. One smiling C.F.F. devotee was offering members glasses of fizzy orange soda. Chhun, 47, didn't cut a very imposing figure. His stomach flopped over his slacks, and his bent legs, small head and doughy face made him look more like a bowling pin than a warrior.

Still, a warrior is decidedly what he is. The C.F.F.'s stated goal is to enlist thousands of Cambodians to topple Hun Sen's quasi-authoritarian government by force, creating chaos out of which, the group said, a better government will emerge. ''Hun Sen -- believe it or not -- he's going to get it,'' said one C.F.F. member, a muscular, middle-aged man nearly spitting with rage. ''We are probably the last hope for the 10 million Cambodians.'' Chhun said he has little idea what form of government he plans to replace Hun Sen's with, though he has two guiding principles: he wants to model a new regime as closely as possible on the ideals of the American Republican Party, and he intends to populate the government with lots of accountants.
"More like a bowling pin than a warrior?" Grin.

18 March 2004

I don't know much about investing in real estate, and I'm not sure I ever will, but I had a great time at the official site of John T. Reed, a financial writer and real estate investor who takes an almost James Randian delight in exposing other real estate gurus, with their late-night infomercials, overpriced seminars, and promises of riches for no money down, as hucksters, bankrupts, and snake oil salesmen. His massive, systematic demolition of Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki is particularly instructive.

16 March 2004

From the (completely unbiased) Times:
With the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, at his side, Mr. Bush demanded that Mr. Kerry provide evidence to support his suggestion last week that foreign leaders want to see Mr. Bush defeated...Mr. Bush then was asked if he and Mr. Balkenende had agreed on whether Dutch troops would remain in Iraq. Neither gave a firm answer.
I'm so excited about the new film Saved!, which seems to be a teenage romantic comedy set in a christian high school... But who on earth am I going to go see it with? I mean who is going to appreciate it in the ways that I will?

15 March 2004

It will probably be gone by the time you read this, but here's an amusing caption from a science article in the New York Times:
This illustration of Sedna is the coldest and most distant object known to orbit the Sun, according to a team of researchers.
Luckily, the Times art department has some very, very, very powerful telescopes.
Last night I saw David Mamet's Spartan, a nervy essay on the action movie in the classic Mamet style. It's fun.

I always have a fine time at Mamet's movies, and almost always leave vaguely disappointed. Something similar often happens with the Coen Brothers. Their best films tend to be just two heartbeats short of a masterpiece, and I always leave hoping that maybe next time Mamet or the Coens will really pull it together and make the great movie they've been groping towards for years. However, I've begun to realize that this may never happen, that their approach to filmmaking, which is highly cerebral, planned down to the smallest detail, closed off from spontaneity and happy accidents, in short a writer's way of directing, may inherently shut them out from the sort of cinema that I love most. It's unclear whether Mamet or the Coens ever work directly from their subconscious, as even Hitchcock sometimes did. And I'm not sure I should expect them to, any more than I would ask Wong Kar-Wai or David Lynch to depart from their chosen mode. These directors don't differ in quality, but rather in kind.

This isn't to say that I won't see The Ladykillers next weekend, though. And I still love The Winslow Boy.
I've just noticed that the first page that comes up when you do a Google search for my name reads "SCREW YOU ALEC N-L."
Looks like Dave was right about the two and a half years to the day after sept. 11th observation.

14 March 2004

One of the small joys in life is coming home saturday night and finding the sunday times.

13 March 2004

Look at this article. I hate to say I told you so.

Here's the website for "Protect Condoms, Inc." I can't really tell if "Protect your ass-ets" can really be serious... The picture here too is kinda funny.

Actually the more I think about it the more I'm sure this is a joke. From the user agreement:
"This Agreement shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of the State of Colorado. Any cause of action with respect to this Site or this Agreement must be filed in the State of Colorado within one year after the cause of action has accrued. Unless a claim is made in accordance with the aforementioned rules, the cause shall be permanently barred."

The attorney who runs the site is only liscenced to practice law in New York, so this must be a joke.

Still it's a good idea, someone's going to run with it soon.

12 March 2004

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today about the Luncheon Club at the New York Stock Exchange, which has closed its doors due to lack of business. It's subscription only, so I can't link to the article (I've been using my company's account), but I thought that this paragraph was worth a chuckle:
To appease its captive crowd, the Club hired a nutritionist to consult with traders and tailor menus. At her suggestion, more turkey and salads are eclipsing the once-ubiquitous burgers and fries. From the bar, traders now can order Liquid Assets (soup), Opening Bell (starters), A Light Trading Day (salads), Blue Chip Special, Preferred Stock (meat), Offshore (fish), Dividends (dessert) and Commodities (fruits).
Yep, this is the sort of thing that amuses me these days.
Does anyone think it's more than a coincidence that the Spanish bombings yesterday came exactly two and a half years after September 11?

11 March 2004

I meant to post this a while ago. While following a link to some conservative news website from ABC's The Note (which is a great site if you have an hour to kill and are obsessed with 527's -- courtesy of Bessie) I found an ad banner for this product, a likeness of the "beautiful" Ann Coulter (or some such language like that). I was shocked, shocked. As any reader of Al Franken knows, this woman is really messed up, and it's even MORE messed up that they make a doll of her.
Ah, life is back to semi-normal. Our legislature packed up their bags and went home, and we just signed a bunch of bills (including our crown jewel, which Noah would be proud of -- eliminating the sales tax on food). But that's not why things are back to semi-normal. Almost a week ago, my state legislator (who had been in office since I was born) decided to retire, and I got the devilish idea to throw my hat in the ring. I spent a couple of sleepless nights deciding whether I should do it, and in the end I decided not to. The people in my office who I had been conferring with breathed sighs of relief that I had returned to my senses.

Of course, if I had been able to schmooze with Warren Buffett and hit him up for campaign contributions, maybe I would have gone ahead and run ;-).
Here's an ethical dilemma for any rabbinical types in the audience: If you go out on a couple of dates with the older sister of your ex-roommate's friend from math camp, but nothing happens, and you both decide by mutual consent to stop seeing each other because you don't like each other very much, even though she borrowed your Gangs of New York DVD and never returned it, and then, without telling you, she applies for your job at your own company, and you're asked by your recruiting department to interview her...does this constitute a conflict of interest?
Here's a nasty little list: the Biggest Second Weekend Drops of movies released since 1982. In other words, these are movies that the public saw, found wanting, and dropped like a cheap boyfriend. Not all of these movies are terrible; they include Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and Mallrats, which I'd happily watch again any day. Still, this isn't exactly the honor roll. One guess as to which recent movie tops the list (with an unspeakably awful 81.9% drop).

10 March 2004

From the New York Times: movie karaoke. The question, of course, is what movie scene you'd choose to perform in front of a crowded room. Without analyzing my choices to the nth degree, I'd have to go with either Lloyd Dobler's "bought, sold, or processed" speech in Say Anything, or Alec Baldwin's "Always be closing!" speech in Glengarry Glen Ross. The sad thing is that I'm not sure which character I relate to more these days.

I'm also very fond of the following:
Gee, thanks, Dave. Bang-up job so far. Extortion, coercion. You'll pardon me if I ask you to kiss my pucker. The same fuckers that rounded us up and sank us into this mess are telling me they'll bail me out? Fuck you. You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting fingered and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that, my guess is you'll never hear from him again.
Edward Norton's speech to the bathroom mirror in 25th Hour also comes to mind, as well as some of Tom Cruise's scenes in Magnolia, but I'm not sure I could keep a straight face.
If you're anything like me, for the past two years you've been wondering about just one thing: whatever happened to Shaolin Soccer? It seemed like the previews were everywhere a couple of years ago, but the movie never got released. Well, according to Greg's Previews, the wait is finally over: Shaolin Soccer, after being pushed back by Miramax no less than eight times, is debuting in New York and Los Angeles on March 26.

09 March 2004

Speaking of books that I have no choice but to buy, The Complete Peanuts also qualifies. This incredibly ambitious series plans to reprint every single Peanuts comic strip ever published, two volumes a year for the next twelve years. (The 1950-1952 edition is being released in April.) This would be an essential purchase even if it weren't for such additional features as a comprehensive index, which, as The Onion notes, contains entries like "Charlie Brown, insults to, re: size & shape of head."

Along with Dr. Seuss, D'Aulaires' Greek Myths, and Idries Shah's World Tales, these collected Peanuts strips are going to be the living heritage that I pass down to my children. And here's the scary part: by the time the last volume of this series comes out, it's not entirely impossible that I'll have a child or two who will be old enough to read the darned things. As Linus himself once said, "That's the sort of thought that gives sober men pause."
The Simpsons meet reality.
Yesterday one of my friends passed me a note in class which read:

"I've gotten over my bad mood. I'm imagining annoying people as penguins."
I should also note that the pop artist with the most frequent product references in his music seems to be 50 Cent, followed at a distance by Lil' Kim and Jay-Z. However, when you look beyond the chart-toppers to consider the larger world of pop music, 50 Cent has nothing on Wesley Willis.
On a somewhat lighter note: American Brandstand is a fun site that diligently tracks the brands that appear in the lyrics of the Billboard Top 20. Updated on a weekly basis, the site allows you to follow product mentions from Usher's "So gimme the rhythm and it'll be off with they clothes, then bend over to the front and touch your toes / I left the Jag and I took the Rolls, if they ain't cutting then I put 'em on foot patrol" to Kayne West's "I drink a Boost for breakfast / and Ensure for dizzert / Somebody ordered pancakes I just sip the sizzurp." Last year, Mercedes was by far the most frequently namechecked brand, followed by Lexus, Gucci, Cadillac, and Burberry.

Of course, for months now, the charts have been dominated by a single, incredibly catchy product reference for the ages, and according to this article, Polaroid is pretty happy about it. However, they've also felt the need to issue a press release noting that Polaroid's instant photographs "no longer need shaking to dry."

08 March 2004

Instead of working on my novel this weekend, which was my original plan, I spent all of Sunday browsing through Rising Up and Rising Down. I still need to pinch myself to believe that this book exists. It's the first book to give me nightmares since House of Leaves; I dozed off around nine o'clock and dreamed about Lincoln's assassination. Although this book really can't be compared to anything, a few obvious peers do come to mind: not just The Golden Bough and The Anatomy of Melancholy and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but also the Summa Theologica, even though RURD is much less orderly.

But here's the scariest and most seductive comparison of all: Pale Fire. Reading RURD, I had the sudden insight that perhaps this is a gigantic novel disguised as an encyclopedia, narrated by a fictional "William T. Vollmann" whose personality keeps peeking through the diagrams and quotations and lists of atrocities. When seen in the right light, Rising Up and Rising Down might be revealed as a monstrous confession. There's something positively Nabokovian in the way that Vollmann hints at autobiographical revelations to come, and I keep getting glimpses of a hidden narrative in those frequent footnotes and asides when Vollmann's treatise slips into the first person. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.

07 March 2004

Here's a bizarre but amusing web site that, believe it or not, did not come from Noah. My favourites: Beatles, Pavarotti, and jamming kittens (described as, "If Destiny's Child were kittens from Northern England, this is what they would sound like").
You have to understand, I'm the guy who read The Anatomy of Melancholy while I was a senior in high school. I also check eBay occasionally to see if a full multivolume edition of The Golden Bough is up for auction. Immediately after reading Sunday's negative review in the New York Times of William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, then, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy of this book. So I scraped together a hundred dollars and bought a copy from Coliseum Books on 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. Lugging the seven boxed volumes home on the subway, I felt like John Turturro at the end of Barton Fink, carrying around a box that may or may not contain a human head. I was also reminded of that movie's final exchange: "What's in the box?" "I don't know." "Is it yours?" "I don't know."

By chance, the seven volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down are just about exactly the size of a human head, although much heavier. And I plan to keep them on my desk at home, for the same reason that a Renaissance philosopher might have kept a human skull on his desk as a memento mori. To explain: Rising Up and Rising Down is a 3,300 page treatise that attempts to answer the question "When is violence justified?" More importantly, it's a living, bleeding example of what an artist can produce, even today, when he assumes the overwhelming importance of his own soul, along with a fair amount of unhealthy obsession. It shames me. Not only does Vollman write huge, unreadable novels, he also puts his life on the line by reporting from the world's worst places. Apparently it's possible to be Pynchon and Mailer at the same time.

You can read more about this book at McSweeney's. You can also come by my apartment to look at it, if you like. I'm buying this book as a public service. There don't seem to be many copies in New York, not even in the library system, and it's worth just browsing through, even if you don't plan to read it. I'm not sure I'm going to read it this year, or even this decade, but like Gibbon, it's nice to have Volmann on the shelf, in reserve, ready for some imaginary intellectual holiday that will last forever. Like the Codex Seraphinianus, Rising Up and Rising Down, with its thousands of pages of obsessive diagrams and photographs and charts and moral corollaries, is like a book rescued from a dream. It's hard to believe that it actually exists, but it does.
As some of you may have heard, for the past year and a half or so, I've been working at a certain financial firm located at Sixth Avenue and 45th Street. As part of my job, I've been required to learn more about finance and investing than I ever wanted. On this blog, I'm usually much more interested in posting about new movies and bad dates than about finance (except to occasionally point out the misadventures of various random hedge funds). However, I feel like making a rare financial post this weekend, both because of a certain blessed financial event that took place on Saturday, and because it beats trying to write this novel.

Over the past year, I've been forced to take three stockbroker's licensing exams, read textbooks like titles like Options Markets and Modern Portfolio Theory, and remember the difference between "convertible preferreds" and "convertible debentures." I also went through a sorry period last summer where I browsed through almost every book in the business section of the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center. However, I've come to the conclusion that nobody needs to know more about finance than can be absorbed by reading three good books over the course of a long weekend. The first is Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street, which allows you to put together an index fund portfolio that you can create and forget about for the rest of your life, except for an annual rebalancing, and still expect to outperform the vast majority of professional investors. (Try it! We can compare notes in thirty years.)

The second book is Andrew Tobias's Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, which covers most of what Malkiel doesn't in a very readable and amusing fashion. Andrew Tobias is also worth a glance online, as I've mentioned before, although these days, you're more likely to encouter a spirited discussion of his sensible political views than anything about personal finance. (Tobias is the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.) As my parents already know, I'll recommend Malkiel and Tobias to anybody who wants to listen, and have even thought about giving copies of their books to all of my friends. I abandoned this plan only after realizing that it was incredibly lame.

The third "book" consists of Warren Buffett's collected letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, which are archived on this site. (The release of Berkshire's annual report for 2003 is the "blessed event" that I mentioned a few paragraphs above.) As many of you probably know, I'm an index fund slut, but I also own a few shares of Berkshire, not because I necessarily believe that it will outperform the broader market (at this point, as Buffett himself points out, it probably won't), but because it serves as an interesting lens for looking at finance. Obviously, you don't need to own Berkshire to profit from Buffett's free advice, but having a personal stake in his company does tend to focus the mind a bit.

In his annual letter, Buffett comes across as a homespun sort of guy, full of corny jokes and asides. (A literary affectation? Probably. But I still think that Nat would get along with Buffett if they ever met at a barbeque.) And his opinions, as expressed in each year's letter, are second only to Greenspan's in their ability to make headlines. In this year's letter, in addition to going over Berkshire's performance, he lashes out at poor corporate governance, mutual funds with bad management, and the Bush tax cut. And it contains one line that deserves to become a classic. Buffett, it should be noted, is the second richest man in the world, and is close to overtaking Bill Gates to become the first. In reference to the recent tax cuts, he writes: "If this is class warfare, my class is clearly winning."

05 March 2004

I've just returned from a screening of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which is the most visually textured and beautiful movie I've seen since In the Mood for Love. It's also psychologically dubious, often absurd, and ultimately unsuccessful as a human story. However, I loved so much of it so deeply that I can only recommend it, flaws and all, as the closest thing to an unmissable movie I've seen all year. It's swoony with sex and movie lust, incredibly lovely, and drenched in good music. The parts are better than the whole, but few recent movies have had so many delectable parts.

Many of these parts, it should be noted, are the property of a young actress named Eva Green, who reminds me that one of the noblest things a camera can do is simply follow around a beautiful girl as she does...nothing in particular. Wong Kar-Wai and Sofia Coppola seem to have figured this out, but only the French have made it into an entire genre. There are certain French actresses whom I could happily observe for two hours in a darkened theater, and Eva Green is almost enough to make you forget about Virginie Ledoyen.

03 March 2004

While it may be overlooked in all the Kerry hullabaloo, here in the Bay Area sales tax is going up (boo), bridge tolls are going up (hooray), Republicans still control the budget-passing process (boo), and the $12bn education bond (including $600m for UC) is winning by 60,000 votes out of 4 million (eek).


01 March 2004

My Academy Awards party was a great success, no thanks to the awards themselves, which were easily the most predictable I'd seen in years. Fortunately, I saw this coming, took a completely naive approach to forecasting the winners, and ended up winning my own Oscar pool.

One could argue that the shortened awards campaign season has made the show easier to predict, since the voters have been given less time to grow tired of their early favorites. If the campaigning had gone on for two months instead of one, Johnny Depp and Shohreh Aghdashloo each might have walked away with a trophy.

Still, it was a fun party, with a rented projector throwing a huge image of the broadcast across my living room wall, and a surreal guest list that included regular blog commentators shh, end, tamara, and even drew hu. My favorite moment was when Sofia Coppola thanked Wong Kar-Wai in her acceptance speech. I knew that those melancholy Tokyo landscapes seemed strangely familiar...