29 July 2004

For just a moment there I thought he was going to say: "As Abraham Lincoln said: 'I hope we have God on our side, but I need Kentucky.'"
After a mild drought at the movie theater, this weekend's crop of new films represents an embarrassment of riches: The Manchurian Candidate, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, Los Angeles Plays Itself, The Village, Harold and Kumar Go White Castle, Garden State, and She Hate Me, for starters, not to mention a revival of La Dolce Vita at the Film Forum and my nagging urge to see The Bourne Supremacy a second time. Any suggestions on where to start?

27 July 2004

From The Bloggable Proust:
When I found myself alone at home, remembering that I had been for an expedition that afternoon with Albertine, that I was to dine in two days' time with Mme de Guermantes and that I had to answer a letter from Gilberte, three women I had loved, I said to myself that our social existence, like an artist's studio, is filled with abandoned sketches in which we fancied for a moment that we could set down in permanent form our need of a great love, but it did not occur to me that sometimes, if the sketch is not too old, it may happen that we return to it and make of it a wholly different work, and one that is possibly more important than what we had originally planned.
This is all apropos of nothing in particular, of course, but it's something I've often thought myself.

25 July 2004

Obviously, America devotes untold resources to imposing our idea of pop culture onto the rest of the world, but sometimes, you just never know what will stick. The Finns, for example, are curiously addicted to the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, and they just love Donald Duck (known thereabouts as Aku Ankka, or "Uncle Duck"). There's a weekly Donald Duck manga that everyone seems to read, and you can't walk a block without seeing an ad for Donald Duck at a bus stop or train station. Upon looking online for an explanation for this phenomenon, I found this article on Carl Barks, the father of Duckburg, by Don Rosa, a brilliant duck artist in his own right. Rosa notes:
I know some specific numbers for several of the countries I'm invited to the most—Donald Duck & Co. in little Norway sells a quarter of a million copies each week. In Finland, the Donald Duck & Co. weekly sells 350,000 copies per issue! In such countries, the Donald Duck weekly is not simply the best-selling comic (sales of other comics are a tiny fraction as large), it is the best selling anything. No publications outsell the weekly Donald Duck comics in these and other European nations. Donald Duck is literally a national hero in these countries. A prime minister might make a reference to Scrooge McDuck or Gyro Gearloose in a speech before parliament. For decades Donald Duck has come in first in the write-in category of the Finnish presidential elections. [Italics mine]
Rosa concludes: "In Norway in about 1992 and then again in Finland as a "Y2K" event, major newspapers asked groups of scholars to list the 10 greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Again, note well that these were recognized, highly respected critics and scholars of world literature, not comic-fanzine journalists. And one expert in each of these polls included 'the works of Carl Barks' in their lists." Maybe it's my Finnish blood speaking here, but I heartily concur.

Carl Barks collections are becoming very hard to find in this country, which is too bad. If anybody is looking for a birthday or holiday present for yours truly, a couple of digest-sized copies of classic Barks stories would fit the bill quite nicely....
I had several posts that I wanted to make as soon as I got back from holland, but one of my last few days there i decided to go back to Utrecht and rescue my bicycle and bike back to Amsterdam. It's about 40km from the edge of Utrecht to the edge of Amsterdam, but I messed up in the beginning going north instead of northwest and missed all the main routes to amsterdam. This meant that there weren't signs to Amsterdam because no one would go to Amsterdam in the way I was going, so it was a bit of an adventure.

At one point I ran into this nifty purely rectangular lake. I thought, "it's a rectangle, that means the lake is manmade." And then, "Wait, it's Holland, it's the land that is manmade."

Then at some point I ended up going through a small town which only had one road and it was under construction. But since there's only one road everyone still used it. So it was dirt and full of enormous holes.

Anyway after going north for a while I realized I needed to turn a little west. So I tried that for a while. Then I decided to try going north again. There weren't any roads going north for a while, but then I found one. I went for about 10 minutes, then i looked to the left and saw that there was a giant body of water to my left. This worried me since at some point I would need to cross it. I looked at my map, tried to find what river it could be... Convinced myself that it wasn't the giant sea in the middle of holland, and kept going. About 5 more minutes there's a gap to the right and I see that there's a giant body of water there too. I stopped and realized that as far as I could see in pretty much all directions there was just water.

So I stopped at the one resteraunt nearby and asked for directions. Of course the waitress spoke perfect english and all was good. Turns out I was in Breukeleveen.

At any rate I had to go all the way around the massive lake... At this point it was windy and rain looked imminent. Finally after far too long I got to the outskirts of amsterdam. I had a slightly nervous ride through the government subsidized high rises at the south end of the city, and realized that the 40km was to the edge of Amsterdam and I still had a while.

FInally at 11pm I got to downtown amsterdam just in time for it to start pouring. So I locked my bike and caught a bus.

Anyway, the point is that after five and a half hours of bicycling with my hands on the handlebars I'd lost sensation in the fingertips of my little and ring fingers of each hand. So I wasn't allowed to type for a while. Hence my unfortunate lack of posting.
I'm sure someone somewhere has already thought of this, but I was struck this weekend by the scam that is "stadium seating" when I watched the disappointing The Clearing this weekend.  I was charged an extra buck and a half to sit in a smaller theater than normal.  They get to put more seats in the same amount of area and charge more for them.

I could also rant about The Clearing but it would involve spoiling the movie and, frankly, I don't think it warrants a spoiler-type discussion a la The Usual Suspects or Vanilla Sky.   
Between taking numerous saunas and swimming in the Baltic Sea, I also managed to read fifteen hundred pages of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. It's great stuff, especially on vacation, where the absence of other distractions allows you to unpack a monster sentence that might otherwise not seem worth the trouble. Noah, I especially recommend the self-contained "Swann in Love" section, which includes as obsessive a description of the relationship between love and pop music as anything this side of Nick Hornby. Whenever Proust devotes all four cylinders to describing some aspect of human experience, you feel as though nothing else need ever be said; for one amazing example, see his essay on kissing near the beginning of Chapter Two of The Guermantes Way.

The best way I can think to describe Proust is by drawing a parallel to Homeric epic. The performative nature of oral poetics means that the poem is infinitely expansible; knowing the interests of his audience, the poet might decide to linger on a scene between two characters or treat it in a couple of lines in order to get to more interesting stuff. You can see this most clearly in the Iliad's battle scenes: some duels take a line, others last for pages, but even the shortest of encounters could be stretched into a whole evening's worth of poetry by expanding an epithet, for example, into the hero's life story, or by extending their speeches, or by augmenting the action with a few well-chosen metaphors.

In Proust, every sentence is expanded to its maximum capacity. Another novelist might spend a line or two describing his beloved's face; Proust begins with the face, then disgresses into thoughts on faces in general, then on the phenomenon of perception and memory, then, reminded by his lover's face of a particular landscape, talks a bit about sunsets or the ocean, and then of landscape painting, and then of art criticism, until, somehow, the sentence deposits us back where we began, on lady's lovely cheek. The result is a novel that manages to thoroughly describe every aspect of human experience through three thousand pages of metaphors and digressions, while encompassing action that, in the hands of another author, would barely fill a novelette.
Tampere also seems to have a record number of sex shops. My mom and I passed about eight in a six block radius (if you count the erotic bakery). They weren't in seedy neighborhoods, either; downtown Tampere is as spotless and preppy as Harvard Square. This all may have been a geographical coincidence, so I'm not sure that any sociological conclusions ought to be drawn. My cousin assures me that Finland has a very healthy attitude towards sex. (My attempts to determine this firsthand with the native population met with scant success.)
At the movies, Finns are remarkably undemonstrative. In the small city of Tampere, I caught a screening of Spider-Man 2 (in Finnish and Swedish subtitles) with a midsized native audience. Having already seen this movie in New York, where the audience was about as vocal and enthusiastic as any I'd ever seen, I had a reasonable baseline for comparison. As far as I can tell, the Finns didn't make a sound throughout the movie: not a laugh, cheer, or clap, and at the end, they filed out in complete silence. I presume that most of them enjoyed the movie (most people of any nation, I think, would have a reasonably good time at Spider-Man 2), but as a rule, they don't seem to be as vocal as their American cousins. For all I know, Finns might find an American audience to be unbearably obnoxious.
Finland was great, but at the moment, I'd rather talk about The Bourne Supremacy. If this movie and its predecessor are any indication, we're witnessing the opening installments of the best series of spy thrillers that the movies have ever produced. Thus far, the Bourne series has displayed a meatier understanding of atmosphere and technique, as well as a classier cast, than the James Bond franchise, to say nothing of the Mission: Impossible movies. If it isn't "intelligent" in the sense of a thriller like L.A. Confidential or The Silence of the Lambs (in that it doesn't try to create a coherent universe of human relationships to fill the gaps between action scenes), it is more than content to be "smart"—that is, superficial, but not actively condescending. Its emotional shallowness might actually work in its favor: it would be too much to follow this character through twelve or twenty episodes if we were forced to believe in him as a human being, but as sort of a clockwork orange for hurtling the audience through a string of meticulously crafted action sequences, Bourne is about as horrorshow as they come.

17 July 2004

I've now officially broken one of the pledges I made to myself in high school -- that I wouldn't live/work someplace where I had to drive a long way to work.  I told myself that after doing a report my senior year on oil dependency.    Now I have to drive 65 miles one way to work, burning a little under 4 gallons of gas a day all by myself when I can't carpool.  Ugh.  Makes me want to get a car with a biodiesel engine that runs off of leftover fast food grease. 

13 July 2004

Well, I'm heading out to Finland for a week or so, where I'm told visitors are invited to sit for hours in a sauna and then plunged into cold water, smeared with honey, and whipped for a while with birch twigs. (It sounds like something that should be subject to the Geneva Convention, but I'm told it's good for the circulation.)

Not sure if I'll be able to blog while there, so somebody else should be responsible for the pretentious movie reviews while I'm gone. Näkemiin, everybody.

12 July 2004

Noah and I have decided that we're going to make it six years out of the last seven, and will be moving together into this place on August 1. The house has friendly people and a nice kitchen. But the best part is that it's two blocks from Berkeley Bowl, the world's most fabulous grocery store. As Noah pointed out, if you're buying a lot of groceries, you can wheel the shopping cart home, unload, and then bring it back.

More importantly, however, this means that the fork and spoon of power will remain united. (Also, I don't know which belongs to whom.)

09 July 2004

David Thomson's essay on Marlon Brando comes very close to summarizing my own feelings about this dead colossus, this amazing wreck of an angel. Two lines in particular stand out:
He made many very bad films, too many; he often seemed to lose interest in a film before it was finished. Yet even when the movie itself was dreadful, his performance could be exquisite. And four or five times in his life, he found himself cast in roles that were emblematic of the inner confusions of his nation.
It is striking — and not entirely beyond the bounds of great dramatic timing — that his death comes at a moment when America's maturity is tragically necessary yet tormentingly distant. If only, we feel, now that he is gone, if only he could have tried again.
If only, indeed. Brando's death, with so much left unfinished, makes me wonder if an artist can really have an impact on the lives of nations. There was a time when I truly believed that the history of the world would have been different if Brando had played Hamlet. I'm not sure if I feel the same way these days. It might turn out that Brando secretly reinvented us, as completely as Harold Bloom claims that Shakespeare did...but it still seems likely that no artist, no matter how fearsome, strong, and brave, can have a fraction of the impact on people's lives as one pathetic Commander in Chief of no particular strength or ability.

This all reminds me, somehow, of something that David Crosby once said about Sgt. Pepper: the good vibes created by that album should have been enough to stop the Vietnam War, but somebody just wasn't listening. The sentiment is echoed in a beautiful comment left on the Amazon.com page for an album by The Postal Service: "...so good that, in a just world, it would stop the war on its own." Yeah.

06 July 2004

I loved Spider-Man 2, but that massive fight scene atop the elevated train didn't look like any New York subway I'd ever seen. A glance at imdb.com confirms that the scene was mostly shot in Chicago, with the El standing in for the defunct 9th Street line. What's the matter, the N train to Ditmars isn't exciting enough for these guys?

05 July 2004

Fresh off one of the greatest upsets in soccer history, I feel as though I must respectfully register my disagreement with Noah's post last month on how soccer is an inferior spectator sport to American sports. Alas, I didn't get to watch a single minute of the tournament because it was only available on pay per view, but I sure love watching soccer.

The best part of the sport is there aren't stoppages. I don't know how anyone can convincingly make the argument that baseball is more fun to watch than soccer. Even the innings where something exciting happens have huge swaths of time where nothing is happening except people spitting, tapping their cleats, adjusting their caps, or trying to hold the runner on first by throwing 15 pickoff throws in a row. An entire game of American football might have, and I am estimating wildily on this, 10 minutes where the players are actually playing. The rest of the time (over 2.5 hours!) they're standing around with their hands on their hips, or I'm having to endure a beer commercial.

Soccer is always moving, and while some parts are more exciting than others, its athleticism has a grace that those sports sorely lack. Just watching a long crossing pass get trapped perfectly is a lot more fun than watching a grounder to short, or a run up the middle for 4 yards.

There is strategy in soccer, but it's more spontaneous and improvised than in other sports. And I think that strikers working together to improvise an attack on goal or a a team's coordinated counterstrike is a lot more fun to watch than the "strategy" of giving a basketball to Shaq in the low post every time, or of seeing the same pick and roll 10 times down the court, or of not throwing strikes to Barry Bonds.

Soccer's curse, that goals are so rare, is also a blessing -- few leads are safe, and the effort and creativity expended in getting the ball in the back of the net is beautiful. While I would like to see more great plays rewarded on the scoreboard, I don't lament the lack of statistics in the sport. American sports are WAY too over-analyzed (except baseball, which lends itself perfectly to that type of analysis). The most important statistic in soccer is the win column, and that's just fine.

That said, there's not a lot wrong with the major american sports, and I think basketball of the non-NBA variety is every bit the sport that soccer is. But I, for one, love watching soccer.

04 July 2004

A typical exchange:

Lisa: There are sooooo many cute things in the world!
Me: And half of them are in your apartment.
A family friend of mine, Ian Bogost, is now at the front lines of the Democrats' efforts to win over the internet. You can read about him, and his Republican counterparts, here. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear as though the game is ready yet, because they don't have a link to it. I will post one when I find it.

If anyone wants my thoughts on the subject, I think that the most amusing online games are the ones where you get to shoot stuff or fight something, and with that in mind the Republican games look like they might have more going for them.

02 July 2004

While reading the news in Le Monde, I discovered that the French have a great word that we should borrow to describe ourselves: les internautes.
The upcoming appreciations of Marlon Brando will no doubt focus on The Godfather and A Streetcar Named Desire, but of all the performances that I've ever seen, his performance in Last Tango in Paris remains the greatest of them all, a sometimes rambling, sometimes intensely focused essay on what it means to be a man, or at least on what it meant to be Brando himself, a bum with poetry in his soul, or a poet with the soul of a bum.

It's the kind of performance that still has the power to invade the world beyond the screen and demolish the relationships of the people seated in the audience, as I've learned from personal experience. If the last three decades of Brando's career sometimes seemed like a long, sad retreat from that unguarded revelation of the self, it was arguably a small price to pay for what is, by a wide margin, the most rounded, wounded, complete human being ever captured on film.