31 January 2005

Friday I rewatched L.A. Confidential for the first time since sophomore year. Several comments:

When we were all deciding what film to rent and this came up (and most of us had already seen it), A.J. said "if you like that you'd probably love Chinatown." And while watching it it struck me just how similar they are, except that L.A. Confidential has a happy ending.

How is it possible to forget such brilliant lines. I remembered most of the scenes (though I forgot the unforgettable "Rolo Tomasi" scene), but I'd completely forgotten brilliant lines like: "You say fuck a lot" "You fuck for money." And really, how is it possible to have forgotten the line "Some men get the world, others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona." It saddens me that there are so many great things in life I've completely forgotten.

An example of how much trendiness affects Academy award nominations and talk? When I looked up the oscars from then, the buzz was for Kevin Spacy as a possible supporting actor nom. He didn't get it. But if this film came out today it would have been Russel Crowe with that buzz.

30 January 2005

This post is for Alec: Today, NPR ran this story about "industrial musicals," a body of musicals that were made specifically for big companies for annual conventions and meetings. The musicals were apparently huge productions employing talented professionals, but they were usually about the company or the products the company manufactured. It's worth a listen; some of these songs are really good, and appropriately hilarious. Some song snippets include a catchy tune about the uses of Silicon and another number about "My Insurance Man."

I can't believe there hasn't been a Simpsons episode about this.

29 January 2005

I've noted before that there's a kind of negative review that makes me want to see a movie more desperately than a good review ever could, assuming that it promises the sort of intensely problematic, uncanny, or jaw-droppingly queer experience that "good" movies so rarely provide. Beyond the Sea is, of course, the most obvious example. For the first time, however, conflicted reviews are tempting me to buy an expensive ticket to a big Broadway musical, namely, the revival of Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein.

It's not that Fierstein has received bad reviews. Quite the contrary: most critics seem to agree that he's great, and far superior to the production itself. But it seems that the casting of Fierstein as Tevye has set up the sort of unpredictable harmonic vibrations that occur on Broadway maybe once a decade, the sort that threaten to shake musical theater to its foundations and rebuild it as something weirder, campier, and more wonderful. It sounds like a casting choice straight out of a throwaway parody from The Simpsons, but for some reason, I can't stop thinking about it.

Here's why. Judging from the reviews, Fierstein, the ultimate self-conscious gay artist, is incapable of playing an Everyman, much less Tevye the Milkman. Audiences are apparently dislocated the second Tevye opens his mouth and comes out with that beautiful, froggy, gravel-pit voice, with, as the Voice puts it, "mild hints of a gay sensibility in his whirlwind hand gestures, or his occasional Edith Evans line readings." Wha-a-a? Imagine Fierstein dragging a milk cart across the stage, or wrapping that voice around "Daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dum," and you've got a sense of how weird this production has to be.

And yet, I'm helplessly drawn to it. Tevye has never had it easy in life, but give him self-awareness along with his other problems and suddenly you've got something that seems ready to change the way we think about musicals. Mezzanine tickets start at $40.00. Any takers?

28 January 2005

Paul Krugman's always good. Today, though, he's great (although the headline is perhaps unfortunate).

26 January 2005

Just saw In Good Company, a movie which inspired the following exchange between Noah and me a couple of weeks ago:
Alec: You know, I'd actually enjoy seeing In Good Company.
Noah: Yeah, me too.
Alec (after a short pause): Not with you, though.
Noah: No.
Anyway, the screenplay for In Good Company, while nimble and sweet, is straight out of a Syd Field scriptwriting seminar (I was able to predict the False Crisis and the Real Crisis with uncanny accuracy, something that I'm rarely able to do). But the cast is just about perfect, even if Scarlett Johansson is underused, and I'm left with lots of affectionate feelings for everyone involved, especially Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace: one's an actor who has ripened beautifully with age, and the other a young guy who will hopefully never ripen at all.

25 January 2005

Another addition to the ranks of "you know you're getting old when..." (e.g. "you remember very clearly things that happened seventeen years ago"): you find your name on a "where are they now" list on the internet.
Check out http://video.google.com.
No real surprises in today's Oscar nominations, at least not for anyone who was paying attention to the Producer's Guild Awards. Still, I'm disappointed that Paul Giamatti didn't get a Best Actor nod, and was secretly hoping for a Best Screenplay nomination for Garden State. As usual, Best Supporting Actor is the most interesting category, with a mix that would have seemed completely absurd a couple of years ago: Alan Alda? Jaime Foxx? Thomas Hayden Church? I'd love to see a win by any of these guys, although I'm secretly rooting for Clive Owen or Morgan Freeman, who, believe it or not, has never won an Oscar.

Two early predictions, which I will no doubt revise: Million Dollar Baby for Best Picture, Scorsese for Best Director.

Also very pleased to see Best Actress nods for, sigh, Kate Winslet and, double sigh, Catalina Sandino Moreno. The biggest omission of all, however: Uma Thurman for Kill Bill Vol. 2. How many people does a woman have to kill to get recognized in this town?

23 January 2005

I hope I'm not the only one on this blog who is eagerly watching tonight's premiere of Numbers, which promises TV's first crimefighting mathematician. So far I can only imagine that there's enough material for one or two episodes, but we'll see if Nielsen thinks math is sexy.

22 January 2005

I just went to the corner supermarket to grab some groceries, a process that usually takes about ten minutes. One hour and one mildly agitated crowd of shoppers later, I'm finally back home. Hmmm. Apparently the apocalypse is scheduled to take place later this evening. Why didn't anybody tell me?

21 January 2005

Deadly Mantis goes multimedia! Readers can download the mix under discussion at the iTunes music store: just go to the iMixes section and search for a mix called "Hello Stranger." Why not? It's only $13.86, and it probably has some stuff you'd like.
Historically-minded readers might be interested to know what Noah thought of the previous mix I made for him, which was blogged about here. Personally, I think that 5-7 listens, with selected songs in the double digits, is more than any mix enthusiast could ask for. Thanks.

I'm surprised that "You Won't Fall" by Lori Carson wasn't higher up in your stats, though. When I first heard that song, courtesy of the ex-Pegasus, my first thought was that you'd go nuts for it. "Nothing Better," of course, was a no-brainer.

Also, I should also note that the top-ranked "Come Back From San Francisco" is the first song on the mix, which is always privileged from the point of view of repeated listens. (Although I hope you like it for its own sake, too, of course.)

If I were making this mix again today, I'd probably replace Gary Numan's "Down in the Park," which is sort of an oddball choice anyway, with "Walnut Tree" by Keane, a random B-side which is one of the best wallowing songs I've heard in a long time. Noah, if you ever get your hands on "Walnut Tree," please feel free to make this retrospective revision to my playlist. It's only a buck on the iTunes store.
For someone who loves the album rock format, I listen to full new albums straightthrough suprsingly rarely. For the first few months I have an album I tend to just listen to the 2-5 songs that I love. It takes much of a year before I'll start listening straightthrough regularly.

This makes me a singularly poor recipient of mix tapes. The person making the tape thinks a lot about how to put the songs together into a coherent whole, and then I spend the next month listening to 4 of the songs in no apparent order.

For example, on the mix Alec just made me, half the songs have been listened to 5-7 times (the number of times I've played it straightthrough) while another few are in the high teens (Changes, Left and Leaving, The Only Living Boy in New York), a couple are in the high twenties (Nothing Better, The Blowers Daughter), and Come Back from San Francisco by the Magnetic fields has hit 38 (good for 12 on my most listened list).

The most listened list is odd since it mostly measures how long the initial burst of listening to it lasts. A typical song on there hits the mid 30s in a couple weeks and then never goes past there.

20 January 2005

From CNN.com:
Poll: Nation split on Bush as uniter or divider

On the eve of President Bush's inauguration, a poll shows the nation is split over whether he has united or divided the nation.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to be a "uniter, not a divider."

Forty-nine percent of 1,007 adult Americans said in phone interviews they believe Bush is a "uniter," according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday. Another 49 percent called him a "divider," and 2 percent had no opinion.

The results nearly match those of a poll taken in October 2004, which showed 48 percent considered Bush a "uniter" and 48 percent called him a "divider," with 4 percent having no opinion.
The Onion couldn't have done much better.

19 January 2005

[Reposted from comments]

Noah and I were discussing this over breakfast this morning [18 Jan]. (Yes, Noah got up before 9!) He suggested that the proportion of top-rank women chess players or mathematicians could never be more than about a third, because boys are more likely to be obsessed to the point of becoming really good at those subjects. I pointed out that the number of top-rank female (classical) musicians is approaching a half, and that requires no less obsession.

Even if there is some minuscule biological basis, it couldn't possibly be enough to explain the current discrepancy, so the debate is irrelevant until we do better.
There's a post over at the Volokh Conspiracy trying to argue that Summers' comments were totally reasonable and showed intellectual curiosity since he was willing to raise such a question.

This is ridiculous. It is not intellectual curiosity to wonder if the difference in GDP/person between the USSR and the USA from 1950-1990 is, in a small part, a result of intrinsic genetic differences between Russians and Americans. It is not intellectual curiousity to wonder if the difference in starvation rates between Ethiopians and Americans over the past 25 years are, in a small part, a result of genetic differences between the two populations.

You can't understand small affects until you understand large affects extremely well. The genetic differences in all these cases are so much smaller than the large obvious differences that the errors in your understanding of the large affects swamp out the small ones.

The Harvard math department in its entire history has had z-e-r-o tenured women. It's not intellectual curiousity to wonder if some of the reason for that is genetic differences, it's bait-and-switch.

18 January 2005

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, has drawn ire for his remarks on women and math. It seems as though at least two of the four bloggers on this page, and an undisclosed number of our regular readers, might have interesting perspectives on this story, no?

17 January 2005

Time can do funny things to movies. Writing about how my perception of Dogville hasn't even survived the year, I was reminded of another unfortunate discovery: I no longer love Magnolia nearly as much as I did in college. Maybe I got to know it too well. There's still a lot to admire here, of course, but a lot of the beauty and excitement is gone. (Curiously, this isn't true of Boogie Nights, which seems even more organic and surprising than when I first saw it seven years ago.)

Other movies grow rather than diminish, of course: Spirited Away. Spellbound.

There's only one instance where I've fallen in love with a movie, then fallen out of love, then fallen in love again: The Shining. The first time I saw it, like many of us, I was blown away. Then, for various reasons, I became embarrassed by it: it seemed overproduced, empty. Now I love it more than ever, but as a Gothic comedy: incredibly rich and beautiful, and hideously funny.

In some cases, it's been so long since I've seen a movie that I no longer know how I feel about it. Case in point: New York, New York. Believe it or not, for years, this intensely troubled and problematic musical, sort of a collision between the 1950s and the 1970s with Liza Minnelli falling in love with Robert DeNiro, was my favorite movie. These days, I'm not sure how it rates, because it's only available on video, and even if I had my copy here, I wouldn't have the heart to subject it to comparatively fuzzy picture and sound. (Love it or hate it, you've got to admit that this is a film that demands crystal clarity.) Guess what? The DVD will finally be released on February 8. I'm excited. And wary.
Cate Blanchett is great in The Aviator, though, even if her Katherine Hepburn is more of a riff than a real performance. She's also great in The Life Aquatic, and the sexiest she's ever been. Wow.

I'm notoriously bad at judging the long-term impact of movies: earlier this year, I predicted that Dogville might be the only movie from 2004 that I'd remember in ten years. I barely remember it after ten months. Still, I have a hunch that The Life Aquatic might be one of those movies that stays with me. A few months ago, I had a dream about going to see The Life Aquatic, and actually managed to conjure up a fairly plausible twenty-minute version of it before I woke up. The funny thing is, the actual movie isn't all that different. I can't really compare it to anything else I've ever seen, except maybe the elaborate daydreams I used to spin into movie-length fantasies when I was eight years old, where The Voyage of the Mimi collided with The Swiss Family Robinson and much thought was given to the uniforms my friends and I would wear and the guns we would carry, and most of a sheet of poster paper was devoted to a cutaway diagram of the cabins and the library and the engine room.

There probably isn't a lot of Life Aquatic fanfic out there, but there should be. I'd read it.
I miss being a movie critic. There's something about being forced to write five hundred words about, say, Heather Graham's Committed that really focuses the brain. It's harder when you aren't on deadline, and aren't getting paid.

I'm not sure why, but there are some movies that I just can't bring myself to blog about. I haven't written a word about I Heart Huckabees, for example, even though it's a fascinating and sometimes wonderful bad movie. Closer, by contrast, I can talk about for hours, even to somebody who hasn't seen it yet, as Noah discovered during a recent visit. (Sorry about that.)

Also, it's been over a week since I saw The Aviator, and I haven't felt too inspired. The exchange that took place between Noah and me after leaving the theater is worth blogging, though:
Noah: I can't imagine a main character I'd have more trouble identifying with.
Alec: And I can't imagine a main character I'd find more fascinating.
True. The Aviator is all about the three subjects that I find totally irresistable: Hollywood, money, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It could have been one of the great movies. The first hour comes close: it's frothy, glittery, tasty in all the right ways. But it seems to lose its momentum halfway through: Scorsese, who is so good at getting inside the head of crazy, coked-up or otherwise deviant personalities in the closing acts of Taxi Driver, GoodFellas, and, yes, The Last Temptation of Christ, can't seem to do the same with Howard Hughes. By the time GoodFellas reaches its incredible final twenty minutes, the viewer is Henry Hill, and his tortured mood of paranoia and guilt can linger for days. For the last hour of The Aviator, by contrast, we're just watching weird behavior and dirty fingernails.
Sorry for the recent lack of posts (though I'm glad that Nat stepped up to the plate). I've been holed up in my Brooklyn apartment for the most of the weekend, trying to get this novel off the ground. Work finally slowed down this week, which means that I'll probably have more time for writing soon, in blog form and otherwise.

15 January 2005

Who wants Matt Leinert on their pro team? I wouldn't, after his announcement this week that he's staying in college for another year because the atmosphere in college is "more satisfying."

He has no meaningful athletic goals left to achieve in college. He is unlikely to develop much more as a player in college because his team is so good, they aren't even challenged. If he wants to be the best pro player in the game, he won't get there staying in college. He might get hurt, and he'll probably get lazier.

I'm glad he cares about his mental well-being. But greatness doesn't come to those who aren't willing to fight and work for it.
The closest Governor's race in our nation's history ended not with a bang, but with a whimper this week. For that, we can credit the blunders of the Republican, Dino Rossi, who (in my view) dramatically mishandled the politics of the recount.

Recounts burst onto the scene in Florida in 2000, and they look to me like they're here to stay. All political operators would be wise to learn the recount fundamentals. Recount strategies were decisive in this race, as well as the 2000 race and the recent Ukrainian presidential race. Here is my incomplete list of recount rules that all candidates would be wise to follow:

1) Keep the base energized. Bigger crowds usually win. This happened in Florida, where Bush flew Republican operatives from around the country to participate in disingenuous "protests" in Florida, and they stole the headlines. This weakened the will of mainstream Americans to support continued uncertainty in the outcome. Likewise, Yushenko won because he brought the Ukrainian government to its knees with his protests. Government officials risked losing legitimacy or worse if they did not acknowledge the wishes of the mob. On this count, Dino Rossi hasn't done badly; my understanding is that he has used talk radio to fan the flames on the right. But he's stumbled on rules 2) and 3), below.

2) Have a concrete, simple demand. This puts you in a much stronger bargaining position, and gives your supporters something to fight for. Rossi had nothing concrete; he whined about there being a recount at all (which also violates rule 3)) and then whined about vague "inconsistencies" when he lost. He kept threatening to ask for something concrete, but kept delaying, and some of the stuff he asked for (including a revote on the basis of there being a statistical tie) was wildly unrealistic and, for lack of a better word, stupid. Rossi still has stuff pending in court, but he's already lost; Gregoire was sworn in and is now governing the state. There's not a court in the country willing to pull the brakes on the state government after everyone has gone back to work, unless there was horribly obvious criminal activity. Bush won on this count in 2000 with a simple argument: stop the recount, period. Gore twisted in the wind trying to explain why we should recount some counties and not others, and why we shouldn't count overseas military votes. Similarly, Yanukovich could only muster vague threats and bluster, while Yushenko asked for one thing only: a revote.

3) Keep your arguments logically consistent. Rossi stumbled by first arguing that there had been no inconsistencies in the voting so no recount was necessary, and then arguing that there must have been all sorts of Democratic shenanigans. You can't have it both ways. This hurt Gore as well when he had to explain why he only asked for recounts in some counties. Gregoire had a potential pitfall when she focused only on including discarded ballots in King County, but she survived because she argued that she was just bringing King County in line with the rest of the state.

13 January 2005

By now, everyone has heard about Prince Harry's monumentally poor judgement in wearing a nazi uniform to a party. Many are even proclaiming that he isn't fit to attend Sandhurst, the top British military academy. But I haven't heard anyone mention what, to me, is the supreme irony in the whole situation. Harry wore the costume to a party with the theme "colonies and natives," or something to that effect (which is in itself appalling to those of us with liberal, multicultural sensibilities). I happen to think it's appalling for another reason, besides the inherent evil of colonialism: the British military that Harry wants to join is currently engaged in Iraq, which is (guess what?) one of those wacky former British colonies that the princes were celebrating at their party. And I'm sure Iraqis would love to hearken back to the good old days when the British exploited their ethnic differences for political gain.

I suppose the chances of Prince Harry actually serving in Iraq are approximately the same as the chances of David Beckham getting sent over there, but it makes you wonder what kind of officer corps you're getting out of these places. It's even more worrisome because the British are supposed to be the "sensitive" troops, who know how to deal with the "natives." Sheesh. Who are we kidding?

12 January 2005

Well, it was bound to happen someday: I was reading the front page of the Wall Street Journal today when I noticed a quotation attributed to a name that looked vaguely familiar. After a few seconds, I realized that I'd spoken to the guy on the phone earlier that morning. What have I gotten myself into?
Blogging about last year's Tony Awards, I wrote:
The real revelation from tonight's awards ceremony, however, was the glimpse that television viewers got of Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz. Jackman seemed visibly uncomfortable as host throughout most of the evening, but as soon as he changed into those tight golden pants and began to sing, dance, and gyrate across the stage, it was hard to avoid the unanswerable question: what is this man doing in Van Helsing?
Someone else was watching, apparently, because Jackman has just signed a deal to star in a series of big movie musicals for Disney, which is great, great news. I'm a sucker for musicals—even Beyond the Sea contained sequences that made me unreasonably happy—and this could be the best thing to happen to the genre in decades. Unlike other movie genres, which in theory can be revived at any time, the musical requires something intangible and unpredictable: the emergence of an extraordinarily talented performer who can carry the entire genre on his or her shoulders. When they aren't around, the genre withers. There may have been fewer than half a dozen performers of genuine star quality in the history of the musical, certainly none since Liza Minnelli, and Jackman's rediscovery of his calling may well be what it takes to bring the genre back for good.

08 January 2005

Blogs have finally arrived on the scene for New Mexico politics, and it'll be interesting to see their impact. Joe Monahan runs the best blog in the state, and it's everything a good blog should be: timely, accessible, full of gossip that real media outlets can't repeat, and wired to a network of seemingly well-placed informants who rarely fail to get the inside scoop.

Just in time for this year's legislative session, the republicans have discovered the blogosphere, and have developed a batch of blogs where they hope to mobilize their minions. (I'm not going to link to them because I don't want them feeling important.) To date, I don't know of any democratic blogs, and I'm hoping we get something up quickly.
I've begun an inquiry to see which college sports rating system I despise more: the RPI or the BCS. My findings thus far:

The purpose of the BCS is so that the biggest sports conferences and the biggest corporate sponsors profit the most from the football postseason. I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone else stands for it. As of this season, the Associated Press is pulling out, but I think the minor conferences should all boycott postseason play, and fans should boycott too. Needless to say, I'm not expecting that anytime soon.

The RPI actually has no inherent corruptive flaws that I can see, but its results are so skewed and arbitrary that I question whether it serves anything at all other than to give a facade of objectivity to the NCAA tournament selection process. My beloved New Mexico Lobos are getting screwed by the RPI, and there's nothing they can do about it.

Maybe the solution is to go back to now caring about sports.
24, possibly the most consistently excellent one-hour drama on television, returns tomorrow night. If you haven't seen this amazing show before, this is probably a good time to start: they've fired or killed off most of the cast and have begun an entirely new narrative arc, although one equally steeped in what-if terrorist scenarios and the ambiguities of how to avert them. Because the characters display a grim willingness to violate civil liberties and the Geneva Convention in order to combat terror, I used to think that 24 was a guilty pleasure for blue state viewers, but now I'm not so sure: Jack Bauer may be morally conflicted, but he also displays heroic competence and a sense of the consequences of his own actions. If our current leaders were more like Jack, I'd feel less worried about going along for the ride.

One startling piece of trivia is that the producers of 24 once thought about optioning The Da Vinci Code as the plotline for the show's third season. While the thought of the deadly serious cast of 24 being hurtled into that silly, silly story is momentarily diverting (and would make a great piece of fanfic), ultimately, the idea is totally incomprehensible. Ever since its series premiere, which aired on November 6, 2001, 24 has always been much more relevant than it ever wanted to be. The thought of its taking on The Da Vinci Code conjures up images of an alternate reality, now gone forever, where a show like 24 would feel like escapism.

06 January 2005

Today's Wall Street Journal cites a recent study by the University of Chicago that found that "most Americans think adulthood begins at about age 26." Hmmm. That's close enough to make me wonder: are we grown-ups? If so, why? If not, why not?

04 January 2005

Inspired by Noah's "get her e-mail address" post: As I was waiting for my luggage at SFO on Thursday, a cute girl came up to me and said, "Hey, do you know [So-and-so]?" A bit taken aback, I slowly said, "Yes..." We introduced ourselves, got to chatting, figured out that we were both from Minnesota (hence on the same plane), we have a mutual friend in the history department (whose house we had met at many months ago) and her roommate is good friends with one of my good friends from Harvard. We rode the BART together pleasantly for about a half hour (I got off in SF), and the whole time I was trying to think of some excuse for further contact -- and I came up completely blank. Any suggestions as to what I should have done and/or should do if I wanted to encounter her again?

03 January 2005

One of the odd things about readjusting to the east coast (other than the difficulty of buying microbrewed beer in Pennsylvania) is the ubiquity of these odd ribons on the back of people's cars. There seems to be two of them, one yellow, one in red/white/blue, and they say "support the troops." I assume this means "send your kids armor since the administration won't" but since they sometimes appear on cars with "W" stickers they must mean something different.

At any rate, I can't figure out why there are more of these ribons in PA, NY, CT (I went on a trip to CT for new years), then there are in say Nevada (where I was over thanksgiving.

This isn't just a liberal/conservative thing. PA, NY, CT are blue and NV is red. I'm very confused.

02 January 2005

Hooray! Roger Ebert has finally written a Great Movies essay on The Red Shoes, the best movie ever made in the English language. You all have Netflix, right? Well, what are you waiting for?