31 May 2008

Quote of the Day:

"Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I'm here to tell you right now, it's a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I'm twenty-eight!"

—Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands

(Sinatra adds: "And I would further like to say that I'd be twenty-two if I hadn't spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.")

26 May 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008. The obituaries understandably focus on his career as a director, but for me, Pollack will always be Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, delivering one of my favorite lines in movie history: "Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn't."
With a little trepidation, I'm wading into the wars over the supposed "liberal bias" of today's academy. Stanley Fish blasts the University of Colorado over its plan to endow a Chair of Conservative Thought and Policy. While I agree with Fish that it's a silly idea, I disagree with some of his reasoning.

It's a silly idea, to me, because the academy should strive to describe the world in (we hope) useful ways. The manner (or subject) of inquiry should dictate how the academy is structured - not the normative conclusion to be reached. Professors should be selected based upon the quality of their research, not upon their political views. Problems arise, however, when faculty politicize their positions - either by blocking new faculty hires who are talented but who have minority political views, or by using their teaching positions to indoctrinate new students. If these practices are going on, then administrators should address them directly, instead of further politicizing the university by expressly hiring faculty based on their political views. Fish spends a bit of time on this point.

Where I disagree with Fish is where he argues that a politically slanted faculty has no bearing on the quality of the university. As I mentioned above, politically slanted faculties can create problems - for instance, they might influence the hiring process by blocking candidates based upon politics. This can create a chilling effect that can only be detrimental to the free pursuit of knowledge - the world is deprived of talented scholars whose only fault is their political persuasion, and young scholars might alter their research queries to avoid politically unpopular results.

I'm not saying much of this is happening - at least not yet. And it's surely less likely to be a problem in less-politicized disciplines (the field where I have the most experience, the law, is probably the most politicized of all). But I'm not ready to say that political homogeneity is problem-free.

24 May 2008

Having just seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for a second time—never mind why—I'd like to add the following observations:

1. When viewed with reduced expectations, the first ninety minutes of this movie are passably good. If the ending were anything other than an anticlimactic fiasco, I'd be pretty happy.

2. The first three Indiana Jones movies were about the search for a sacred artifact—the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara stones, the Grail—and climaxed with the artifact's recovery. In the new installment, the crystal skull is found within the first forty minutes, and the rest of the movie is devoted to putting it back. Somehow this doesn't seem as dramatically compelling.

3. During the "climactic" scene, in which the true nature of the crystal skull is finally revealed, instead of being overwhelmed with awe, I found myself remembering something that Chief Wiggum once said: "Yeah, right. How ya gonna get 'em? Skeleton power?"

23 May 2008

According to Wikipedia, screenwriters who either wrote or were approached to write drafts of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull included M. Night Shyamalan, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Gaghan, Jeffrey Boam (who wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and Frank Darabont (writer and director of The Shawshank Redemption). Apparently Darabont's version of the story was enthusiastically approved by Steven Spielberg, but rejected by George Lucas, prompting the immortal observation (by me) that Hollywood is the sort of place where the guy who wrote The Shawshank Redemption gets script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.

I mention all these names because although the new Indiana Jones movie is energetic and sometimes fun, the final screenplay, by David Koepp, is a real mess, a hodgepodge of half-developed plot elements and MacGuffins without an emotional center. It's especially disappointing compared to the screenplay for The Last Crusade, which is literate, exciting, emotional, and makes a surprising amount of sense. No other screenplay has ever seized my imagination as strongly as The Last Crusade did (partly because I was ten years old at the time). By the last reel of Crystal Skull, by contrast, we're still confused about basic plot points and character relationships, and the ending could be scored, not with John Williams, but with Peggy Lee singing "Is That All There Is?"

As my previous postings on the subject might indicate, nobody approached this movie with more unnatural passion than I did. It's possible that I'll change my mind after another viewing—which may happen tonight. There's a lot to admire here, especially near the beginning, and there's one extended chase scene that ranks with the best in the series. In the end, though, action is cheap. I'm not sure what I was hoping to feel instead. Awe, maybe. Or illumination. George Lucas would probably tell me that I'm crazy. (Although, as the Onion points out, he'll probably fix it twenty years from now.)
It's graduation season, so congratulations to those bloggers and readers who are getting degrees. My graduation doesn't really feel like such because I immediately began studying for the bar. Nonetheless, I got some post-graduation validation that I had entered the right field when I read that the legal profession ranks as one of the top career fields for introverts. This was surprising to me, since my personal feeling is that a lot of legal work involves dealing with other people, and I don't think introversion helps at all.

The most interesting thing about the list is it ranks the legal field second in the category of best-paid professions for introverts. What is first, you ask? Astronomers! Who knew? Maybe those people who took Celestial Navigation were on to something.

10 May 2008

When I heard that Errol Morris was making a movie about Abu Ghraib, my first reaction was unmitigated excitement. Morris, as I've said before, may be the most consistently interesting director in America, and he's one of the few artists in any medium whose engagement with a topic tends to yield meaningful, valuable discoveries. I genuinely thought that I was going to learn something important from this movie. Having finally seen Standard Operating Procedure, I'm left feeling alternately impressed and frustrated, with a sense that the film raises more questions than it answers. This may have been what Morris intended, but it's unfortunate that I find myself suspecting that the answers I wanted to see, far from being inconceivable, have simply been left on the cutting room floor.

Morris's great gift has always been for exploring the personalities of his subjects. It's hard to think of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control or Gates of Heaven or his short profiles for First Person without remembering specific, indelible human faces, men and women who have taken up permanent residence in my imagination. None of the participants in Standard Operating Procedure ever comes to life in quite the same way, which is a considerable loss. If Morris could have turned Abu Ghraib into a place populated by individuals we've come to know and understand, it would have been his greatest achievement. Instead, we're left with a very intelligent and ambitious essay by a filmmaker who exercises complete control over his material, to the exclusion of the weird, tangential, serendipitous moments that made his earlier work so wonderful. The result is still compelling, and there are some virtuoso sequences, but it leaves you craving the raw footage.

For what it's worth, a recent piece by Morris and Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker fleshes out one of his subjects, Sabrina Harman, in a way that the movie does not. Reading this piece makes me wonder about the messier, more humane film that Morris could have made instead. The footage must exist, but it's outside the frame.
It's hard to believe that more than two years have passed since I last saw Blue Velvet on the big screen, but this weekend, it's playing at midnight at Landmark Sunshine, a theater that may be one of the great unsung treasures of New York moviegoing. (In the past year alone, I've seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Pink Floyd the Wall at the Sunshine, and in two weeks, they'll be playing The Shining.) I went to see Blue Velvet last night, and I can say that the Sunshine has provided close to the perfect set of conditions for seeing this movie—large screen, nice auditorium, gorgeous print. The sound could be a little sharper, perhaps, but since this movie has some of the most challenging sound design of any film ever made, all things considered, the sound crew has done commendable work on what had to have been a rush job.

Watching Blue Velvet again, I was struck for the first time by the work of one of its unsung heroes: Duwayne Dunham, the editor, who also edited Return of the Jedi and Wild at Heart and went on to direct important episodes of Twin Peaks, as well as Little Giants and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. (That's one hell of a resume.) Although it's impossible to say for sure, I have a hunch that Dunham was responsible for pulling this movie into its current shape. A glance at the original screenplay, as well as the deleted scenes on the DVD, reveal that a lot of extra material, some extraordinary, some naive, was shot and cut. The final version of the film moves from one astonishing set piece to another, going from high point to high point almost without interruption. Nothing that David Lynch has done before or since matches Blue Velvet's focus and power, and Dunham may be largely responsible for this.

At the moment, Dunham doesn't seem to be doing much, spending his time directing TV movies and contributing to special features on the Twin Peaks box set. Would a reunion be too much to ask?

05 May 2008

On a lighter note, you can take this prediction to the bank: Robert Downey Jr. will be named People's Sexiest Man Alive within the next twelve months. It isn't that Downey has suddenly become all that more attractive, but People has been running short of reasonably presentable A-list actors for some time now (seriously—Matt Damon?), and a $100 million opening weekend is enough to make anyone look good.

A decade ago, Downey was in jail. Now he's Iron Man. Apparently there are second acts in some American lives. I was contemplating Downey's meteoric rise, and pondering the equally dramatic, but opposite, trend in the life of Tom Cruise over exactly the same period, when I remembered an astonishing fact:

Tom Cruise turned down the part of Iron Man.

Interesting, isn't it?

Was there a secret karmic transfer between Cruise and Downey in early 2005? Is the role of Iron Man the opposite of the Superman curse? And what does this mean for Gwyneth Paltrow? I'm sure that the blogosphere will uncover the real story soon...
Iron Man may be the first $180 million comic book movie in history with a great curtain line—which means, of course, that the New Yorker spoiled it. I'm getting a little tired of Anthony Lane and David Denby's determination to reveal the ending of every movie that has ever been released. Denby is usually a little better about this, but if you look at his Iron Man review, you'll see that he blows the ending for absolutely no reason. You could delete the offending sentence entirely without detracting from the point he's trying to make, which (spoiler alert!) is that there may be a sequel in the works. Really?

For the record, A.O. Scott, who is probably the best movie critic working today, hints at the ending much more gracefully in his own review, and without detracting at all from its critical merit. Clearly, this is an institutional issue. The New Yorker's editorial policy on spoilers, if it exists, must be a joke. Well, no more. As of today, I'm no longer reading Lane or Denby reviews of movies that I haven't seen yet. It just isn't worth it.

03 May 2008

What the heck kind of sport is this where you surround injured competitors with large trucks (so no one can see what you're doing) and then kill them? Sheesh.

02 May 2008

I can't say I ever expected a video of me shaving my legs to make in on Youtube.

(Last month I went with the UNM triathlon team to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for the collegiate national triathlon championship. Gatorade sponsored a contest for teams to shoot videos that featured Gatorade. I shaved my legs to help on the swim, which is a bad idea because they're still scratchy three weeks later.)