Thursday, May 29, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
Still, there's something to be said about Pollack's belief in the star system. As a producer he nurtured Anthony Minghella. As director he was as responsible as anyone for creating the Robert Redford we know today, for better or worse. With the exception of his stint in live TV in the fifties, nothing in his resume suggests risk or novelty, and that's the way he liked it:
Pollack spoke of his preference for working with big stars in an interview with New York Times in 1982.Beginning with his classic portrayal of harried professional angst in Tootsie, Pollack remembered his roots in acting, and returned to them like a thirsty man in the desert. He carved a number of indelible representations of a type that Hollywood knew all too well: the oily wheeler-dealer who's not listening to a second of the shit coming out his mouth. Years in the industry -- hell, Michael Ovitz was a client and friend -- no doubt gave Pollack the verisimilitude necessary to pull it off. Whether it was in Death Becomes Her or The Player, Pollack's performances always gave the impression, with their cut-the-shit snarls and smug consumption of every available molecule of oxygen, that he was the savviest man in the room: a survivor, which may be the only type that Hollywood appreciates. Last year he said more with a disgusted glance and a tight-lipped swig of single malt Scotch than all of George Clooney's exertions in Michael Clayton; even last October I was writing that it may be his last time around. So if there's one Sydney Pollack film you gotta see, don't rent Out of Africa or Jeremiah Johnson -- go straight to 1992's Husbands and Wives, in which Pollack got his only chance at sustaining a character arc for an entire movie. As Judy Davis' self-deluded, newly divorced husband, Pollack reminds me of every single fiftysomething dad I've ever met: his mind is unaware that his body is sagging, soft, and unresponsive. Highlights: his confession to Woody in a convenience store ("Big deal! So she's not Simone de Beauvoir!"); or his sputtered remarks to Lysette Anthony during what was at the time the most harrowing scene Woody had ever filmed ("My friends are trying to make an intellectual conversation, and you're sittin' there jerkin' off about tofu and crystals and shit"). He should have gotten an Oscar nomination, but Pollack's acting -- look at his work in Michael Clayton -- is too non-fussy to get noticed by Academy types.
"Stars are like thoroughbreds," he said. "Yes, it's a little more dangerous with them. They are more temperamental. You have to be careful because you can be thrown. But when they do what they do best -- whatever it is that's made them a star -- it's really exciting."
Sometimes, he added, "if you have a career like mine, which is so identified with Hollywood, with big studios and stars, you wonder if maybe you shouldn't go off and do what the world thinks of as more personal films with lesser-known people. But I think I've fooled everybody. I've made personal films all along. I just made them in another form."
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Happy Memorial Day weekend.
Friday, May 23, 2008
I am not, I hasten to add, arguing here against the public discussion of history. If the Nazis were being invoked more generally—in warnings, say, about the unpredictability of totalitarian regimes—they might be a useful part of a number of discussions. Unfortunately, Nazi analogies are nowadays usually deployed in order to end arguments, not to broaden them. Once you inject "Hitler" or "the Third Reich" into a debate, you have evoked the ultimate form of evil, put your opponent in an indefensible position—"What, you're opposed to a war against Hitler?"—and for all practical purposes halted the conversation.Fans of Indiana Jones know that "Nazis" is itself shorthand for Dastardly Godless Evil.
Invoking the Nazis also changes the tenor of a debate. There may be good, tactical reasons for choosing not to negotiate with Hezbollah or the Iranian regime, for example (the best reason, usually, is that the relevant diplomats are fairly sure that negotiations won't work). But calling opponents of this policy "appeasers" distorts the debate, giving tactical choices a phony moral grounding. In reality, circumstances do change, even where "terrorists and radicals" are involved, as this administration in particular knows perfectly well.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Monday, May 19, 2008
All of these presidents benefited, as Bush hopes to benefit, from the consonance between their sweeping, often hubristic goals and the gradual upward trajectory in human affairs. Despite our crimes, the Philippines turned out well enough in the long run, and so did South Korea; in the very long run, so did post–World War I Europe. (Indeed, if LBJ or Nixon had only found a way to prop up South Vietnam until the 1990s, they might have been forgiven the outrageous cost in blood and treasure, and remembered as Trumanesque heroes rather than as goats.)I said as much a couple of months ago. But Douthat (craftily?) omits any allusion to the manipulation of intelligence and swelling of executive power that's transpired in the adminstration of this Bush, both of which should remind him that powerful presidents are more attractive in history books than in office.
But these well-respected presidents have benefited, as well, from the American tendency to overvalue activist leaders. So a bad president like Wilson is preferred, in our rankings and our hearts, to a good but undistinguished manager like Calvin Coolidge. A sometimes impressive, oft-erratic president like Truman is lionized, while the more even-keeled greatness of Dwight D. Eisenhower is persistently undervalued. John F. Kennedy is hailed for escaping the Cuban missile crisis, which his own misjudgments set in motion, while George H. W. Bush, who steered the U.S. through the fraught final moments of the Cold War with admirable caution, is caricatured as a ditherer who needed Margaret Thatcher around to keep him from going wobbly.
But back to the films. I was surprised that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe kept most of the book's nuances. Thanks to the casting of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch (a much cooler and imperious vision of evil than Lewis', and thus compelling) and Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie, we understand the tug that this pagan world exerts on the four children. It says a lot about the first adaptation that by the time the children are coronated I wanted it to keep going. As the book that really got me to keep reading the series (I read TLTWATW not knowing it was the first of seven volumes), I've a special affection for Prince Caspian, narrative problems notwithstanding. The film adaptation straightens the unwieldy flashback with which the book's first half begins, yet sacrifices the children's affection for each other and connection to their adopted world for swordplay and horseplay. Peter Dinklage's Trumpkin – the novel's most enduring character – gets nothing to do. There's little sense that these four children were once kings and queens and mighty warriors, worthy of being summoned from the High Past (Edmund in particular wanders in a daze through most of the film). Peter and Caspian arguing over battle plans could very well be Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez bickering over who asked a girl out first. Finally, whoever came up with the bright idea of having the Telmarines talk like Ricky Ricardo and look like Raul Julia should be sacrificed on the Stone Table.
Good news, though: director-adaptor Andrew Adamson will hand the franchise to someone else for the next adaption, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the most leisurely, action-packed, and religio-mystical of the seven books, and somehow my favorite.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
"Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key -- all deceptively simple."--Bob Dylan, Chronicles.
From today's New York Times Magazine interview with McCain:
“I’ve seen other stories and I’ve seen comments about my national-security speech,” McCain said, referring to an address he gave in Los Angeles a few weeks earlier. “The story line is as follows: ‘McCain’s not the same McCain. He’s changed, and now he’s become a hawk, and he is dramatically different from what he was.’ ” He recited this narrative as if repeating the nonsensical words of dullards. “And anybody is free to write whatever they want and form whatever opinions they want to form. But facts are facts. And the fact is that I know war, and I know the tragedy of war. And no one hates war more than veterans.”
From here, McCain went on to list for me some of the military actions he supported (Grenada, Panama) and some that he opposed (Beirut, Somalia). He had always followed the same set of values, he said, grounded in the premise that all people, not just Americans, were created equal and had inalienable rights. And when America could intervene militarily to further those values around the world without needless sacrifice in lives and money, he was all for it, and where we couldn’t, he was not, and there was nothing extreme about that.
“As far as people who advise me,” McCain went on, though I still hadn’t asked a question, “probably one of my most trusted advisers for the last 30 years is Henry Kissinger, not known as a hawk or a neocon.” McCain infused the word with sarcasm. “I also remember the days when Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a hawk and a neocon. I remember the near hysteria in response to his ‘tear down this wall.’ I remember the ‘Oh, you can’t do that, when you call the Soviets an evil empire.’ I remember all those things. Same people who are now saying — ” He stopped himself midsentence, then began again. “I’m always open to new ideas and new thoughts, but my principles were grounded many years ago in places like the National War College and other places where I have learned and studied and talked to people I admire and respect.
“So,” McCain said finally, “with that preface, I’d be glad to answer any questions you might have, and again, it’s always good to be with you.”
The profile is touching in ways that reporter Matt Bai and McCain himself didn't expect. Here you see a serious man, much more serious than his brethren in the Republican Party, struggling to articulate a foreign policy that redresses the evil (there's no other word) of Kissingerism -- whose adherents showed nary a gasp when the Metternich of Foggy Bottom sabotaged Hubert Humphrey's peace plan so that his capo Richard Nixon could get peace with honor by invading Cambodia -- yet clings to that very American espousal of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as long as McKinley-Roosevelt's Open Door Policy was honored. I admit, there may have been a time in the recent past when McCain's inchoate vision may have sufficed -- may even have honored our divisions about what to do with all this power and a limitless supply of foreign markets buying our consumer goods; but it's not 2000 anymore, and to be right about theocratic terrorist cells isn't the same as being right about the American counter-argument. He reminds me a bit of Herbert Hoover: earnest, plodding, possessed of good motives but awful instincts, unable to accept that the time for his beliefs has long since passed; the age demanded something else, even if the alternative we vote for poses questions whose answers may make us tremble anew. Who can blame McCain? Pessimism is a tenet of conservatism that I accept wholeheartedly.
Dylan again: "Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm."
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Numerous states have already adopted laws declaring that they will not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. Moreover, the Defense of Marriage Act makes clear that states are not required to do so. Thus, those states which wish to continue to deny basic marriage rights to their gay citizens will be free to continue to do so. Today's ruling applies only to California.This is the crux of the matter. At Babalu Blog, I've a civil debate going on with two critics of the California Supreme Court's decision. One ECM makes a valid point: the legislature could have over-ridden the governor's veto if a veto-proof majority in support of the legislation existed. I don't know the intricacies of the California legislature (ours is erratic enough), so maybe some of my readers on the west coast can chime in. So I remain cautiously optimistic. Were the voters to approve the constitutional amendment in November, critics of today's decision can rightly crow -- and study the quiet experiment in homo/hetero cohabitation happening in Massachusetts.
(4) The Court did not rule that California must allow same-sex couples the right to enter into "marriage." It merely ruled that if the state allows opposite-sex couples to do so, then same-sex couples must be treated equally. The Court explicitly left open the possibility that the state could distinguish between "marriage" (as a religious institution) and "civil unions" (as a secular institution) -- i.e., that California law could leave the definition of "marriage" to religious institutions and only offer and recognize "civil unions" for legal purposes -- provides that it treated opposite-sex and same-sex couples equally. The key legal issue is equal treatment by the State as a secular matter, not defining "marriage" for religious purposes.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
It certainly promises to be a movie for our times. Of the seven Narnia books, Prince Caspian is the most militaristic. There's a big battle scene in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of course. Yet it's a relatively small part of the book—it takes up roughly a single paragraph. Prince Caspian is different. One of its major themes is just warfare, and there's plenty of fighting—Narnia scholar Michael Ward has made this point.Listen to his lips smack. He goes on to say that Americans would flock to a Black Hawk Down-type film about Marines in Fallujah. Miller may be right, but with Americans as confident about the way things are as George W. Bush's approval ratings, producers may need to replace soldiers with talking badgers and centaurs.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Monday, May 12, 2008
Baker's book is subtler than his written remarks endorsing pacifism. War is an inevitability; as 1938 becomes 1939, peaceful co-existence with Germany was an impossibility no matter how many pacifists went on hunger strikes. The moral clarity to which Churchill aspired in his writings and public appearances had its counterpart in the floor speeches by Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana (who also made news in 1917 by opposing WWI). Both seem equally deluded: Churchill genuinely believed in the edifying nature of war and Rankin in the nihilism of blood. That both forces were unofficial, uneasy, but essential partners is one of the ironies Baker and his critics miss. Pacifism may have been futile, but its adherents were the only ones who understood the nature of the Nazi threat: while FDR was sending shipfuls of Jewish refugees back to Europe and Neville Chamberlain venting silly social hostilities, pacifists, James Wolcott reminds us, risked their lives to help the endangered race. In an experience as devastating as WWII, no one emerged with clean hands, nor should we expect them to. This is why Orwell's writings constitute the best example of how a man of reasonable intelligence thinks through the problem of evil, without delusion.
Friday, May 9, 2008
As for me, every time I've heard "Take On Me" in the last eight years I've been very drunk in a club, and it sounds like bliss, like ten thousand seraphim chanting the name of the Lord -- and it's got nothing to do with the video. The fadeout -- in which singer Morten Harket's unearthly alto competes with doubletracked harmonies trying to quelch him -- is exactly what I mean.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
JOHN GARDNER: Mainly, fiction goes immoral when it stops being fair, when it stops trusting the laboratory experiment...I would agree with people who get nervous around the world morality, because usually the people who shout "immoral" are those who want to censor things, or think that all bathroom scenes or bedroom scenes or whatever are wicked. That kind of morality is life-denying, evil. But I do think morality is a real thing that's worth talking about...It means what it means, and the fact that it's out of style doesn't matter very much. It's like patriotism, which as got a very bad name because devils keep yelling for it. Ultimately patriotism ought not to mean that you hate all other countries. It ought to mean that you love certain things about your country; you don't want them to change. Unfortunately, when you say "patriotism," everybody goes "aargh." Same thing with morality.
-- The Paris Review Interview, 1979.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Monday, May 5, 2008
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Thursday, May 1, 2008
...Her voice sits way up front, honking and cranking at you like it’s being squeezed out of a constricted larynx. My theory is that her regularly underwhelming pipes are mixed so loudly to counterbalance the conceptual and sonic anonymity she often resorts to here as success insurance. Maybe I'm off. Maybe it's that she just transcends technical skill – if enough people say something is good, so do the charts. However interpreted, what starts out as delusion ends up coming off as humility – she’s naked against these bare backing tracks. There she is imperfect, maybe even unpleasant, refracting the rays of musical sunshine that back her up Maybe the point isn’t forgetting that this is Madonna, after all. Maybe if you let your mind wander a little more, you can remember that you're listening to an actual, vulnerable person. You can remember that you're listening to just this girl who loves dance music.It's enough to make grown man cry. Then again, Madonna would rightly balk at being expected to sound like 1983 all over again. I mean, wasn't that what Confessions On A Dance Floor was all about?
Since their appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in their third record in 14 years. All my cavils about Beth Gibbons' voice duly noted, I found that her arid, pinched yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I'm assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted that Third is "out of time" – it could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces, etc. To me this is a subtle indictment – rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don't concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from "We Carry On" through "Machine Gun" is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. It's the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes, complete with Belgian beehive synth sounds and a submerged harmony that's perfectly out of time. I still wish Gibbons was a person instead of a spectre – it's the crucial thing keeping this record from greatness – but playing to her weaknesses makes this very bitter pill go down.
Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
– Elizabeth Bishop