27 February 2008

In preparation for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I've been reading a lot of crossword books, including Cruciverbalism by Stanley Newman, which I finished yesterday. In a section on the need for "a robust, wide-ranging, malleable, and ever-growing vocabulary," Newman writes:
Our conversational vocabulary of 3,000 words represents less than one-sixth of the total words with which we're familiar; most of us actually know and recognize about 20,000 words. That national average may drop substantially when William F. Buckley finally shuffles off this mortal coil...but there's no reason why we should rely on the estimable Mr. Buckley to prop up our stats.
Well, great. So what's the average now? (For more thoughts on Mr. Buckley, see here.)

22 February 2008

Other authors of this blog (and certain other regular readers): mark your calendars for November 15, 2008.

21 February 2008

I'm in White Plains right now for an environmental law moot court competition. One of the perks of visiting New York: I'm blogging from a sushi joint.

Another perk (sort of): cable TV. This morning, I psyched myself up for the competition by watching the 1970 NY Knicks on ESPN classic. This evening, we turned on Fox News, and within 5 minutes Brit Hume compared Barack Obama to Chairman Mao because both of them attracted throngs of listeners. Boy, I wish I could watch that on a regular basis.

16 February 2008

I also love David Lynch's thoughts on product placement.

These clips are especially striking, because in the old days, Lynch couldn't even bring himself to say the f-word. According to Dennis Hopper—I can't find the source, but I think it was on Inside the Actor's Studio—Lynch would write the word on a piece of paper and point to it while giving him direction on his dialogue in Blue Velvet. He seems to have loosened up in the meantime. Maybe it's all that Transcendental Meditation...

15 February 2008

Evidently David Lynch has some pretty strong views on iPhones.

14 February 2008

By the way, it's important to point out that Obama hasn't been winning caucuses and primaries because of his vision and charisma—it's because of his superior organization, both on the grassroots level and on the higher levels of technology, analysis, and strategy. Placed in an admirable position by good timing and high hopes, he didn't flame out like a Fred Thompson or Rudy Giuliani—he rose to the occasion. He followed through. Anyone who claims that Clinton is better at execution or specifics needs to explain why she's been consistently outmaneuvered by a guy she's trying to paint as a visionary milquetoast.

13 February 2008

Are movies simply better now than ever before? A year ago, I was blogging about Children of Men, The Departed, and Pan's Labyrinth, and the latest crop of great films certainly suggests that something remarkable is happening. A glance at last year's box office reveals that there will always be room for pandering and mediocity, but the best movies of last year demonstrate a willingness to pair big stars and budgets with equally vast ambitions:

1. Zodiac. The most technically accomplished and comprehensively organized film of the year is also the best serial killer movie, the best newspaper movie, and the best San Francisco movie I've ever seen. It's so scary, funny, and fascinating, so rammed with life, that I actually forgive David Fincher for Fight Club.

2. There Will Be Blood. "The more books we read," Cyril Connolly writes, "the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." Alone among directors of his generation, Paul Thomas Anderson has kept his eye on the long game. This amazing, aggravating movie is the enduring result.

3. Once. Even more than the insanely ambitious films mentioned above, this slight, magical story cuts to the heart of the mystery of movies. How can a few good songs and a handful of perfect moments, apparently captured on the fly, become a permanent part of a moviegoer's inner life?

4. No Country For Old Men. I've always had mixed feelings about the Coen Brothers, especially their comedies, but this movie demonstrates how design, suspense, and narrative ingenuity can result in their own kind of mordant wit. I have a feeling that this is one of those terrifying movies, like The Shining, that will become weirdly funny with time.

5. Michael Clayton. Screenwriters rarely make great directors, but Tony Gilroy has fashioned a beautiful centaur, a big commercial movie with the heart of an indie film. My favorite image, aside from the final shot, is Tom Wilkinson's penultimate scene, a nod to a timeless movie cliché: "Every shopping bag contains at least one baguette."

6. Grindhouse. In time, a lot of people are going to regret not seeing this encyclopedic, immersive, overwrought sensation on the big screen. Both halves are brilliant, but it's the ending of Death Proof, and that amazing car chase, that sticks with me the most. This movie's failure, and the unlikelihood of future sequels, is a loss for the entire culture.

7. Eastern Promises. This perfectly conceived and executed gangster movie features, of course, the greatest fight scene in years, the sort of brawl that you can closely track, with your eyes closed, by listening to the screams of the audience. After—and perhaps because of—three decades of anatomical creepiness, David Cronenberg has emerged, inexplicably, as one of the best genre directors in the world.

8. American Gangster. This may be Ridley Scott's best movie, terrific in ways both big and small, an epic of seamless momentum, intelligence, and taste. The grace with which it assembles its huge cast and detailed story is comparable, on all levels, to L.A. Confidential. Higher praise is not required.

9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In its own quiet way, this is one of the most beautifully composed movies of the year, with a suspenseful, involving story told in fewer than seventy separate shots. Every frame radiates intelligence—especially in the dinner party scene, which is a real tour de force. The fact that it wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Film is one of the year's biggest scandals.

10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. A consummate artist with a huge ego, Julian Schnabel lavished all of his skills on this exquisitely conceived movie, with considerable help, one assumes, from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. At times, it resembles a bottomless bag of tricks, but the acting and soundtrack allow the emotion of the story to permeate what is, at heart, a brilliant excuse for showing off.

If anything is missing from this list, it's an animated movie, since Ratatouille, Persepolis, The Simpsons Movie, and even Enchanted served, in highly diverse ways, as a reminder of how vital the medium can be. As for the worst movie of the year, it's hard for me to say anything good about 300, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. That's the mark of a great year for cinema—when even its lowest point is some kind of classic.
DC v. Heller, the 2nd Amendment case currently before the Supreme Court, presents an interesting legal issue, but (as I've mentioned to some of you in person) just as interesting is the political posturing regarding the case.

The first wrinkle is the fact that the NRA originally tried to sabotage the case to avoid a direct Supreme Court ruling on the scope of the Second Amendment.

The second wrinkle is how governments are lining up on either side of the suit. The federal government is split; while the United States supports the DC gun ban (sort of), Dick Cheney has gone ahead and joined a brief supporting gun owners. Former DOJ officials have filed briefs on both sides. Most interestingly, more states (31, including New Mexico) have lined up on behalf of the gun owners than have on behalf of the District of Columbia (6, counting Puerto Rico). Unlike most of the amicus briefs, I think the state briefs could prove important.

There are also a whole slew of political interest groups who have jumped in, like "Jews for the Preservation of Firearm Ownership." My favorite: the Pink Pistols, a GBLT rights group that wants to prevent firearm ownership from being conditioned upon military service (since gays and lesbians can't serve in the military). It's an interesting argument.

The above-mentioned briefs can be accessed here.

12 February 2008

According to the latest polls, Obama leads McCain by eight points, while Clinton is within the margin of error. Nobody's going to beat McCain by playing the experience card.

10 February 2008

Torrey and I had the feelings of Nat's classmate as we were watching the candidates on CNN at the gym this morning. (If you're ever in Chicago, I highly recommend the gym at the Ritz-Carlton. Of course, it helps if your fiancée's grandparents live in the apartment building.) I missed Hillary's 5 minutes, but when Barack got up there I thought "he looks like a president" and then he spouted vague generalities. Torrey reported that Hillary was much more concrete. Perhaps my infatuation is fading. Can either of them really beat McCain?
Mike Huckabee's response to the fact that John McCain holds such a commanding lead in the delegate count that he's effectively unstoppable:
I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles.

Huckabee is like my sticky-fingered 7 year old neighbor who comes over to play on the computer - he's cute and he makes you laugh, but you have to keep your eye on him and don't let him get near your valuables.
The latest word from the New York Times is that Barack Obama may have actually exaggerated the extent of his drug use during high school and college. Was he just trying to inflate his score on the purity test?

08 February 2008

August: Osage County isn't just the best play I've ever seen on Broadway—it's arguably the best work of art I've seen all year, trumping even the fruits of an exceptional year for movies. It's like the mirror image of There Will Be Blood: instead of an epic movie with no women set in all of the outdoors, it's an implosive play with seven amazing female characters—and six amazing men—set entirely in a house where the windows have been papered over. Yet the chain-smoking, pill-popping family matriarch is more frightening than Daniel Plainview with a bowling ball. Even Anton Chigurh would feel uncomfortable in this crowd. (I can easily imagine Violet Weston, the scariest mother in recent theatrical history, reducing Chigurh to a sniveling lump with a few choice remarks about his awful haircut.)

As an occasional playgoer, I've often sympathized with Homer Simpson, who, confronted with a quiet day at the zoo, exclaimed: "I've seen plays that were more exciting than this! Honest to God—plays!" And at first glance, August: Osage County seems like a hard sell. Yes, it's three hours long. But in practice, those three hours feel more like thirty minutes, and they're over all too soon. It isn't a perfect play—the bracketing of the story with quotations by T.S. Eliot feels too neat, a saintly American Indian character is woefully undeveloped, and there are one or two surprise revelations too many—but you get the feeling that these issues would have been addressed if the play ran four, five, or six hours. I would have been more than willing to spend an entire day with these characters, if the results remained as consistently funny, shocking, and compelling as they are now. Will there be blood? Are you kidding?

07 February 2008

This is my last post about Obama love. At school there has been a heated debate over email over whom to support, and one Hillary supporter summed her feelings up this way:
I read Obama’s books last summer and I was really into him then much like I see how people are into him now. But after time had passed and the debates began, my infatuation with Obama subsided and my confidence in Hillary came to the forefront.

Discovering Obama is like falling in love because of the freshness of his ideas and fairytale-like quality to the vision he articulates. But, like most loves, after time the novelty fades away and you just have a sincere guy who has great ideas and great potential.

As for Hillary, she may not invoke “Beatles-level” hysteria, but she seems to me to be sharper, stronger, and steadier than Obama, and that’s why I voted for her. I think Obama is presidential material—just not yet.

06 February 2008

My best guess as to Paul Krugman's vitriole is that he must want a job in the Clinton Administration.
Once again, New Mexico is too close to call. And once again, we botched things up. After running out of ballots in our first presidential caucus four years ago, we decided to do it again this year.

I was a presiding site judge at a voting site in Albuquerque, and we made the executive decision to have people start voting on scraps of paper. (Other voting sites just halted voting in the hopes that they'd receive more ballots, but we weren't that optimistic and didn't want to keep people waiting.) I felt like part of the Iraqi Provisional Authority. Luckily, though, the voters were tremendously patient under the circumstances, and kinder to us poll workers than I would have been. We did receive an influx of ballots near the end of the day, and we thankfully received confirmation that our paper scraps would be counted like all other ballots.

More on the love metaphor - only time will tell if the infatuation of politics wears off as quickly as the normal kind. But a friend told me this morning that her Republican girlfriend felt like she was going through a "bad breakup" because Giuliani dropped out of the race after she fell for him.

05 February 2008

Just got back from voting. It was a tough call, but I was finally swayed by the Tatyana Ali endorsement.

Also, in response to an unanswered comment below, I think that Obama is much stronger against McCain, for reasons that Frank Rich can articulate far better than I can. (I was telling Wailin last night that Frank Rich is by far my favorite of the current roster of Times pundits, although he has an unfair advantage, since he has a whole week to prepare his column. Krugman has also been really cranky recently. Or maybe he really just doesn't like Obama.)

In any event, the prospect of Obama vs. McCain is a joy to contemplate. But I'm also used to having my heart broken. We'll see...