30 November 2005

Haiwen sent me a link to this article with the comment, "You're sure to see this eventually, so let me just get it out of the way now." What do you think he meant by that?

29 November 2005

Apparently the hedge fund where I work is now a megamanager. (To paraphrase Jon Stewart, I can't be the only one frightened when my company sounds like it could take on Godzilla.)

28 November 2005

Well, if those high-voiced actors can't cut it on stage, how else are they going to make a living?

Maybe they could get into the lucrative field of being prescription drug representatives. As the NY Times reveals, the main qualifications for being a drug rep seem to be attractiveness and...experience as a cheerleader! With more and more female doctors these days, I'm sure Matt Damon could make a lot of sales.

After reading the article, I'm left with this question: why are drug reps legal at all? What possible public good could come from salespeople bugging doctors to prescribe expensive drugs? Yes, yes, the drug companies will say that they're "educating" the doctors, but what can a cheerleader with no scientific knowledge tell a doctor that s/he can't find in two seconds on the internet?

27 November 2005

This weekend I finished reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, which I've just discovered is reputedly the longest novel ever written in the English language. If I'd known this earlier, I'm not sure I would have begun. Psychologically speaking, it's one thing to start reading a 1,349-page novel, and quite another to be told that it's the longest novel of all time. Don't I have other things I should be doing?

Luckily for me, A Suitable Boy isn't just the longest novel ever written in English; it's also one of the best.
Thinking a bit more about Matt Damon's problems as an actor, I've come to the conclusion that he just doesn't know how to use his voice. Neither, really, do Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Edward Norton, or any of the young actors whom we're now supposed to accept as leading men, despite their thin, high voices. Is it simply because these guys were trained in television and independent film, not on the stage? Watching—and hearing—a classically trained actor like Christopher Plummer in Syriana, you think to yourself: Damn. But what's Ben Affleck going to sound like when he's eighty years old?

These guys aren't untalented, of course, and some of them are excellent actors. But I'd be interested to see if anyone can nominate an American actor under the age of forty whom you'd be glad to hear, rather than see. (Johnny Depp's forty-two, by the way.)
I just got back from seeing Syriana, and I'm wondering whether I should wait a couple of days before trying to record my thoughts. At a coffee shop conversation immediately afterwards, I was probably too hard on the movie. It's the sort of film that ought to provide viewers with an optional flow chart to keep track of characters and relationships, and most of the discussions I overheard outside the theater were of the "What was that guy doing in Beirut?" variety. It's unclear whether this confusion is because of justifiable complexity or lapses in narrative technique. Moreover, the motivations of several important characters remain mysterious, even after the movie is over. Is this an attempt at realistic understatement, or the result of trying to condense a potential miniseries into a two-hour running time? Probably both.

There are also more fundamental problems. Most of what happens in the third act, with George Clooney driving frantically across the desert to prevent an assassination, is completely implausible. A subplot about a couple of suicide bombers starts promisingly, but ends up feeling like a failure of imagination. And finally, it just isn't clear that a thriller—or a movie, for that matter—is the best vehicle for what the director is trying to accomplish. It can't name real names or drill very deep, and it's occasionally reduced to using Matt Damon as a mouthpiece for editorial comment. (I kept wanting a character to turn to him and say, "Who are you, the narrator?") Probably the worst thing you can say about Syriana is that it uses its veneer of authenticity and relevance to get away with narrative compromises that wouldn't pass muster in The Bourne Supremacy.

On the other hand, this is mostly a very interesting, ambitious, well-crafted movie that works as a thriller almost in spite of itself. It has a nice feel for location and behavior, and is occasionally very suspenseful on an intellectual and visceral level, if rarely on an emotional one. The last act is full of problems, but it comes together nicely in a way that, say, Traffic did not. In general, it's masterfully edited and assembled. While you're watching it, you're entertained and engaged, and it's only afterwards that you start to question what you've seen. I have a hunch that Syriana is a film that I'll like more and more as time goes on, unlike most movies, which I tend to like less and less. It represents the work of a lot of people operating near the peak of their ability to bring off an almost impossible project, and for that reason alone, it's worth seeing.

After the movie was over, my friend and I found ourselves walking down a street in SoHo, commenting loudly on Matt Damon's limited range as an actor. Of course, I quickly glanced over my shoulder first, to make sure that he wasn't walking behind us.

26 November 2005


Let's say you play for a professional basketball team in one game and don't get paid anything. Could you call yourself a professional basketball player?

I know this might not sound like a very interesting question. But there are all sorts of second- and third- tier basketball leagues popping up these days, and Santa Fe actually has its own pro team now, called the New Mexico Style. Chris tried out for the team but took himself out of the running because he wasn't willing to quit his day job. Well, the coach called him Thursday night and said that they were having roster issues and asked him if he could suit up for a couple of games. Chris said yes, and he suited up last night for a game against the Gallup Talons. He got into the game for 35 seconds at the end. He got a "trillion," meaning he registered no stats other than minutes played (so his stat line would be a 1 followed by 12 zeros). The final score was 149-116, Gallup, which may explain why Chris got into the game.

23 November 2005

Until a few hours ago, the only movies to ever make me cry were Saving Private Ryan and The Last Temptation of Christ. Well, I cried all the way through Ballets Russes, an amazing new documentary about two dueling ballet companies in the years leading up to World War II. My eyes literally welled up with tears within the first minute, and I spent the rest of the movie alternately laughing, choking up, and staring in astonishment at the screen. This is a great documentary about dance, but it's also one of the best movies about youth and old age I've ever seen, and the juxtaposition of archive dance footage—which is often incredible in itself—with the faces of the dancers fifty years later is incredibly moving, almost miraculous. I know that I recommend a lot of movies on this blog, sometimes with mixed results, but really, if you're in New York or anywhere else that Ballets Russes is playing, you owe it to yourself to see it. And then, what the hell, you should rent The Red Shoes, too.
I just got a lot more interested in watching the Macy's parade tomorrow. As the New York Times reports, there will be high winds tomorrow. That means the giant balloons might blow away and wreak havoc, like the Cat and the Hat did in 1997.

What's more, there are allegations that the parade organizers have slacked off on training balloon handlers this year. Instead, many volunteers have simply been given pamphlets explaining the basics, including this helpful tip: "Please do not inhale helium escaping from the balloon." (One might ask how much training is really necessary for balloon handling. But then, we've never tried controlling a Cat in the Hat big enough to eat a whale.)

22 November 2005

My company's holiday party is always slightly ridiculous, and this year should be no exception. The invitation reads: "The evening will feature great food and drink, music, and performances by Cirque du Soleil." Sounds like the fall of the Roman Empire, doesn't it?

17 November 2005

Just to show that it's possible to be critical and clear-eyed about C.S. Lewis without sounding like an idiot, check out Adam Gopnick's rather excellent article in this week's New Yorker. I particularly appreciate this paragraph:
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.
Now that's criticism: a thoughtful, interesting observation that actually engages Lewis on his own terms. Is this sort of thing even allowed?

16 November 2005

Typical New York moment:

A friend and I were going for lunch today when we saw a bunch of trailers and catering trucks parked along the street outside the office, which made it look like a movie was being shot in our neighborhood. As we were speculating about which movie it might be, we walked past a co-worker of ours, who waved as we went by.

Later that afternoon, the co-worker came up to me and said: "I don't know if you noticed this, but Matt Damon was walking right behind you...."
Don't freak out if the blog starts getting some hits from Kuwait or Iraq pretty soon.

My little brother has been deployed, hopefully to return sometime early next year. I don't have an address for sending cookies and body armor just yet.

15 November 2005

From the current Vanity Fair cover story about Kate Moss, that beautiful space alien:
In January...she sued the Sunday Mirror, which printed allegations that she had passed out on cocaine. [A friend] says that Moss was actually with Nelson Mandela at the time she was supposed to be lying in a drug-induced stupor—and that there were many witnesses to prove it.
Best alibi ever.

14 November 2005

I wonder sometimes whether watching movies in Berkeley theaters gives me an unusual perspective on films. Slate has a fascinating article on Sarah Silverman which says about the most memorable moment in cinema this year: "Instead of laughing, we were all stuck trying to decide whether this was some new species of joke or just plain old slander."

What theater was that journalist in?? The 80 year old women next to us were laughing in Berkeley.

Speaking of Berkeley locales and funny perspectives, I was shocked to discover when voting that the person next to me on the voter roll is a republican! Only on one the page. There was also a poll worker explaining to us our choice of paper ballot or machine ballot who was able to quickly explain not just what the difference was, but which company made both the electronic voting machines (Diebold) and which company made the machine which scans the optical ballots (which I've forgotten).

Oh yeah, all the above took place in the local Hare Krishna temple where we all vote.
As the release date of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe approaches, I'm becoming increasingly annoyed, not at the movie itself, but at the treatment of C.S. Lewis by, er, well, the liberal media, which insists upon tarring Lewis with the same brush that it uses for American evangelical Christians. The current nadir of this trend is this article in Sunday's New York Times, which may be the meanest, most ill-spirited thing the Times has published since it tried to eviscerate Woody Allen three years ago. The article is ostensibly about the difficulty of balancing the Christian and commercial aspects in the upcoming Narnia movie—and really, hasn't this angle been beaten to death already?—but it's really an excuse for a lot of snarky ad hominem jokes at Lewis's expense. Writes author Charles McGrath:
The exact nature of [the relationship between Lewis and Minto Moore] is something that many of Lewis's biographers would prefer to tiptoe around. But Lewis was far from a sexual innocent, and the evidence strongly suggests that, at least until he got religion, there was an erotic component to his life with Minto. Did they actually sleep together, this earnest, scholarly young man, conventional in almost every other way, and a woman 26 years his senior? Walter Hooper, the editor of Lewis's "Collected Letters," thinks it "not improbable." A.N. Wilson, the best and most persuasive of Lewis's biographers, argues that there's no reason at all to think they didn't, leaving us with the baffling and disquieting psychological picture of C.S. Lewis, the great scholar and writer and Christian apologist-to-be, pedaling off on his bicycle, his academic gown flapping in the wind, to have a nooner with Mum.
Actually, Charles McGrath is the one who has left us with this "baffling and disquieting psychological picture," which he so lovingly limns, even when the "strongly suggestive" evidence boils down to "Hey, there's no reason to think they didn't." (I really hope that my biographer takes the same approach someday, and concludes that there's no reason to think that I didn't make out with Natalie Portman one night at the Signet.) McGrath goes on to note that "Lewis was a progressive in nothing except his choice of women to sleep with," calls Aslan "Jesus in a Bert Lahr suit," and also claims that the Narnia books are "not nearly as well written as either the Potter or the Dark Materials books." You don't need to be Harold Bloom to find that last judgment more than slightly questionable.

Really, though, I shouldn't blame the Times, but the American evangelicals who have persuaded a bunch of otherwise reasonable people that if something expresses even a hint of Christian allegory, we ought to attack it, boycott it, or—worst of all—condescend to it, as if there were no distinction between The Divine Comedy and the Left Behind series. In all seriousness, we aren't too far from a point where people will confuse Dante with Jerry Falwell, and assume that he must have been a questionable moron. C.S. Lewis was no Dante, but he was no Jerry Falwell, either, and we all lose out, culturally speaking, if we can't make the distinction. This may be one of the worst aspects of the American evangelical legacy: with their sanctimoniousness and occasional stupidity, they've alienated a lot of really smart people from some really good books.

13 November 2005

Goethe on Shakespeare: "He is even too rich and powerful. A productive nature ought not to read more than one of his dramas in a year, if it would not be wrecked entirely." Oops.
Yesterday I got a letter from the IRS. Usually one isn't too happy to get a letter from the IRS, but this one was a little different:

We do not have a record of receiving your 2005 Form 1040ES third quarter payment. If you mailed your Form 1040ES payment to an IRS post office box in San Francisco between September 1 and September 11, 2005, it may have been lost or destroyed during transport.

On Sunday, September 11, 2005 an accident occurred on the San Mateo Bridge near San Francisco, California involving a courier transporting payments to an IRS Payment Processing Site. A truck carrying tax payments overturned, causing approximately 30,000 Form 1040ES quarterly tax payments to be ejected into the San Francisco Bay.

If you sent a payment during that time and the check has not cleared your bank, please send us a replacement check...

It's nice to know that someone at the IRS has a sense of humour.
Here's the dumbest thing I've done in a while. The following is an actual exchange from a party last night:
Me: It's amazing how much of my inner life has been shaped by the Pet Shop Boys.
Attractive Girl: Really? Me too!
And I didn't get her phone number. Sometimes I think I must subconsciously want to be alone...
One big surprise is that after Shakespeare's four major tragedies and the first part of Henry IV, the play that means the most to me is Cymbeline, a work that can fairly be described as neglected. (Quick—is Cymbeline a man or a woman?) Much of it is wonderful parody—it gleefully flings together most of the conventions of Elizabethan comedy in an unbelievably intricate plot—but it's exuberant, encyclopedic parody in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the parody transcends and surpasses its source material.

Because of his obvious affection for his sources, I feel very close to Shakespeare when I read Cymbeline, which I think represents his true farewell to the theater, much more so than The Tempest. It also has his best song ("Fear no more the heat o' the sun") and what I would venture to call his greatest role for a young woman. In fact, I now want to name my first daughter Imogen, which has led some people to assume that I'm a big fan of the band Frou Frou, and others to assume that I'm nuts.

11 November 2005

As some of you already know, one of my goals for the year was to carefully read all of Shakespeare, mostly on the subway. Today I finished reading Henry VIII, and with that, I've now read all of the plays. (Well, fine, there's still The Two Noble Kinsman, but it isn't included in my 40-volume Yale Shakespeare set.) It took me about six months, since I started in mid-April, and the Sonnets and other poems should take me through the end of November. I'll probably blog more about this over the next few days, but the bottom line is that I should have done this years ago. In particular, if I'd read Shakespeare seriously during my freshman year at college, I might have majored in English and ended up in graduate school.

First, though, a minor complaint. The book that I'd really hoped would be my guide to Shakespeare, Marjorie Garber's acclaimed Shakespeare After All, ended up being a disappointment, a flat, boring book that reads like a sold B+ term paper stretched out over a thousand pages. The problem, I think, is that it tries to be objective about an author who defies objectivity, and who demands a personal, idiosyncratic response from his critics. Shakespearean criticism, like all good criticism, really needs to be written in the first person, and there isn't a moment in this huge book when Garber speaks as herself. The result reads like an epic set of Cliffs Notes:
Significantly, in this deposition scene, Richard deposes himself.

King Lear focuses at once on partiarchy and paternity, on the interaction between the role of the king and the role of the father.

In the fifth act of Macbeth, the language of disease is everywhere.
None of this is at all wrong, of course, but it's a series of observations without opinions or insights. Compare the previous three sentences, chosen basically at random, with an equally random plucking from Harold Bloom:
If your Cleopatra is an aging whore, and her Antony a would-be Alexander in his dotage, then we know a touch more about you and rather less about them than we should.
All else aside, which of these two critics would you rather read? You could argue, of course, that the focus of these books should be Shakespeare, not Garber or Bloom. But if there's anything I've learned over the past six months, it's that everyone has his or her own Shakespeare, and part of the interest of good Shakespearean criticism is following the personal engagement of a strong critical mind with a mind that is even stronger and less knowable. Without that engagement, you might as well just stick to the plays, which don't benefit from a cautious critical approach. It's a shame, because elsewhere, Garber can be smart and provocative and sort of crazy. Unfortunately, in trying to write the "indispensible" book about Shakespeare, she ends up being completely dispensible—everything and nothing. It's like reading a Shakespearean essay by Harriet Miers.

10 November 2005

You know, I used to wish that I could have stayed in college forever. Then I heard about this guy.

09 November 2005

Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I once complained about excessive usage of the phrase "sea change," only to be greeted by a tidal wave of skepticism from all of my friends, none of whom could remember ever seeing it in print. (The Beck album of the same name hadn't been released at this point, which should give you an idea of how long ago this was.)

Anyway, this led to a brief flurry of "sea change" mania, and Noah blogged about it here. Now, more than three years later, I've finally found the reference that got me to thinking about this phrase. It's on page 382 of Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence:
In academic writings as in journalism, [Rousseau's] name and the adjective Rousseauian are used to characterize opinions that he never held. These statements contrary to fact are repeated by rote when certain subjects arise, just as Shakespeare's phrase "sea change" is set down when the writer thinks of change.
There you go. And guess what? Apparently Microsoft, of all things, is in the middle of a sea change, too.

07 November 2005

John Fowles died on Saturday. He was one of the best.

05 November 2005

You know, the more I think about it, the more indignant I feel at the way most critics have treated Elizabethtown. I'm usually quite forgiving of these guys, and I know that there's nothing worse than dismissing a bunch of movie critics—who are, for the most part, decent, passionate people—just because you happen to disagree with them. But sometimes, well, they just smell blood in the water, and pummel a interesting movie because it would be too much trouble to defend. (The classic example is Gigli, a flawed but reasonably likeable movie that is nowhere near as bad as anyone suggests.)

Elizabethtown is no Gigli, but it did have a disastrous premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and maybe a lot of critics were fed up with Cameron Crowe and his mix tape soundtracks and repeated attempts to insert catchphrases into the popular consciousness. Fair enough. But a lot of critics are treating this movie as a career-ender, and if Elizabethtown is any indication, this is not a career that deserves to end. Maybe it's a failure, or even a fiasco, but it's a beautiful one.
I also caught Domino recently, which I enjoyed, although I do wish that the director had allowed the audience to focus on some of those extraordinary images—in particular, those involving Keira Knightley—for more than three seconds at a time, and without any jump cuts, flare outs, or jittery camera moves. There's a great movie called Domino somewhere on Tony Scott's cutting room floor, and it occasionally appears onscreen, in moments that are like a mash-up of my own subconscious—with Keira Knightley, Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke, Mena Suvari, and Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green occupying the frame simultaneously. Unless I'm very much mistaken, Tom Waits also shows up at one point, somewhere in the desert, looking very, very grizzled.

04 November 2005

Somewhat to my surprise, I really, really liked Elizabethtown. I liked it even more when I saw it last year, and it was called Garden State.

Honestly, this is a flawed movie, but it's heartfelt, lovingly crafted, full of good ideas, and completely unbelievable. Fine. Maybe I'm just at a point in my life where I respond to movies about emotionally repressed young men who are inexplicably saved by Natalie Portman or Kirsten Dunst. If so, they can keep making this movie every year. I'll keep going to see it—until it happens to me, I guess.
I had no idea that Claude Lévi-Strauss was still alive. (I owe this information to the Wikipedia article on the Prospect Top 100 Intellectuals Poll.) Feels like some sort of mistake to me...