Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Object vs. subject

I’m impressed by William Taylor’s distinction between Ukraine as object (a nation to be exploited, manipulated) and Ukraine as subject (a nation seeking to exercise agency, autonomy).

Everything George Kent and Ambassador Taylor have said this morning is a rebuke to the clownish lies and obfuscations of those seeking to defend Donald Trump. High seriousness is winning the day here.

NYT commentary

The New York Times has a running commentary on today’s impeachment hearing, with eight reporters. Very helpful.

[But so far: no mention of George Kent’s dangerously uncapped Nalgene water bottle.]

Gods and mud

I was in a colleague’s house, standing in the kitchen next to a salad bar where you weighed your plate to determine how much to pay. Then I walked downstairs to an event sponsored by my department. The gist of it: each participant, faculty member or student, chose the identity of a god and rolled around on a floor full of mud. Jesus, predictably, was already taken. “What about the Father and the Holy Spirit?” I asked. “Are they still available? Because it’s one God in three Persons. Write this down: A question from Thomas Aquinas.” I stripped to my T-shirt and underwear but couldn’t bring myself to roll in the mud, so I walked back upstairs to dress. I had two or three shirts to choose from. A friend from high school was standing next to the refrigerator. “We should really try to stay more in touch,” I said.

This is the seventeenth work-related dream I’ve had since retiring, and the first about a service activity. The others have been about teaching: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15, 16.

[Playing god and rolling in the mud might both be considered elements of academic life. In waking life I did neither.]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

From: Stephen Miller

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch is examining leaked e-mails between Stephen Miller and Breitbart News. First up, a look at Miller’s source materials:

That source material, as laid out in his emails to Breitbart, includes white nationalist websites, a “white genocide”-themed novel in which Indian men rape white women, xenophobic conspiracy theories and eugenics-era immigration laws that Adolf Hitler lauded in Mein Kampf.
Why am I not surprised?

Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

All the King’s Men (dir. Robert Rossen, 1949). From Robert Penn Warren’s novel: the rise and fall of populist politician Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), whose idealism gives way to corruption and the general destruction of those around him. (Everything Stark touches dies, as Rick Wilson might say.) The parallels to a certain presidential career are eerie, as Stark throws away a written speech in favor of improvisation, rouses “the people,” and merges himself with them: “Remember, it’s not I who have won, but you.” Alas, the hope in the film’s final moments does not ring true. ★★★

*

The Spider Woman (dir. Roy William Neill, 1943). The real mystery with this Sherlock Holmes film is how it got to the top of our Netflix queue. The print we watched gives the date as MCMXVIII — 1918! — which is the first of many problems, large and small. The premise is beyond farfetched, and Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is a lucky bumbler in solving the case. A touch of racism and several dashes of misogyny put a damper on what fun there is, which comes from seeing Rathbone is several disguises. ★★

*

Produced by Val Lewton (via the Criterion Channel)

The Seventh Victim (dir. Mark Robson, 1943). One of the strangest films I’ve seen. A young woman (Kim Hunter) leaves a religious boarding school to search for her only relation, an older sister who’s gone missing (Jean Brooks), and the search leads to a small group of Greenwich Village Satanists. The rewards of the film are many — unforgettably eerie images (the door to apartment no. 7, the trio on the subway, the shower, the empty streets of an unreal city), a vague same-sex subtext, the mysterious next-door neighbor Mimi, a failed poet in a garret, the improbable presence of Hugh Beaumont — and they more than make up for a sometimes incomprehensible plot. The previous sentence is long enough to count as two, but here’s a fourth. ★★★★


[Did this shower scene influence Hitchcock?]

The Ghost Ship (dir. Mark Robson, 1943). Low-budget, for sure, but stylishly filmed and engagingly weird. A young man (Russell Wade) takes a position as third officer on a merchant ship, where he finds himself serving under an autocratic captain (Richard Dix) who appears — appears — to be murderously out of his mind. But no one else sees it — or almost no one. With deep shadows, strong suspense, a brutal knife fight, and the unnerving presence of Skelton Knaggs. ★★★★

Bedlam (dir. Mark Robson, 1946). A plucky young woman (Anna Lee) seeking to improve conditions at St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum (Bedlam) ends up in indefinite detention there, under the eye of the menacing Master Sims (Boris Karloff). Not as compelling as The Ghost Ship or The Seventh Victim, but vaguely literary, with overtones of Poe and explicit references to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. And the first glimpse of Bedlam’s interior suggests a scene out of Dante’s hell. Look for Ellen Corby, Billy House (the druggist Mr. Potter in The Stranger), Skelton Knaggs, and Ian Wolfe. ★★★

*

Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (dir. Shirley Clarke, 1963). A portrait of the artist as an old man, an amateur farmer, and homespun entertainer. Invaluable, of course, as a portrait of Frost nearing the end of his life, muttering and puttering in his writing cabin (in what looks like rural squalor), joking with John F. Kennedy, and charming audiences of college women. But the film leaves untouched the darkness and sorrow of Frost’s life. And that of course is just as the poet must have wanted it. ★★

*

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2019). A portrait of the artist as a fierce, witty sage and storyteller. The best moments come from Morrison herself, speaking to the camera about her life and work — I wish there were even more of her and less praise from the large supporting cast. Farah Griffin and Fran Lebowitz are the bright lights in that cast, commenting on Morrison as writer and friend. A second wish: more discussion of the distinctive qualities and complexities of Morrison’s fiction, as hinted at in brief glimpses of pencilled pages working out genealogy and narrative structure in Beloved. ★★★

*

Derrida (dir. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, 2002). I watched with a mixture of curiosity and dread, as one who was once deeply into “theory” before finding my way out. We see Jacques Derrida doing everyday things (looking for keys, getting a haircut, eating potato chips), sparring with the filmmakers over their questions (some of which he refuses to answer), and making nonsensical pronouncements: there are two futures, one predictable, the other not; the human eye doesn’t age or change (tell that to someone with macular degeneration); a biography fixes the sense of someone’s life for centuries (example?). How revealing to see Derrida trotting out the same distinction between what and who in a discussion of romantic love and a discussion of forgiveness and reconciliation. I see here not a philosopher but a rhetorician with a designer-knockoff bag of tricks. ★★

*

Detour (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). Oh contingency, understood here as “fate, or some mysterious force,” which “can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” I love this film’s thrifty minimalism: bandstand + tables + candles = nightclub, street sign + fog = city, darkness = the open road. Doomed Al (Tom Neal) and vicious Vera (Ann Savage) are joined till death do them part, as, in a different way, are Al and Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). A twinning detail I never noticed before: the matching fedoras. ★★★★

*

Following (dir. Christopher Nolan, 1998). It’s something like a contemporary Detour — a short, low-budget noir — but here the small budget makes Detour look like a major studio production. A tricky mystery, with a young would-be writer who follows strangers in search of inspiration for his fiction and falls into a life of crime. Like Nolan’s Memento, Following presents a non-linear narrative, with visual cues that help the viewer put the pieces of the story together. And then there’s an extra twist that no one will see coming. ★★★★

*

Zazie dans le Métro (dir. Louis Malle, 1960). The premise: a ten-year-old girl is left with her uncle for a weekend. Wanting to find an open Métro station (there’s a strike on), she breaks free, sort of, and anarchy in various forms ensues on the streets of Paris. It’s all fun and jokes and tricks and car chases, but the fun gets to be exhausting, so that the movie feels much longer than its eighty-nine minutes. I suspect that Zazie influenced the tiresome lunacy of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the energizing lunacy of A Hard Day’s Night. ★★★


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2018). Six stories of the old west: a singing cowboy, a robber and rustler, a traveling show, a prospector, a young woman traveling with a wagon train, and a mysterious carriage ride. Everything here moves west — in other words, toward death, in ways that are comic, poignant, stupid, and inevitably surprising. A great cast (Tyne Daly, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, &c., &c.), a charmingly stylized screenplay (“He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’”), and extraordinary detail to sets and costumes. My favorite stories: “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon” (all Waits), and “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” ★★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard) : Frost and Sandburg

Monday, November 11, 2019

Words of the year

From the Collins Dictionary, climate strike : “a form of protest that took off just over one year ago with the actions of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and which has grown to become a worldwide movement.” I’ll add to this post as more words arrive.

My embarrassingly obvious word of the year: impeachment. Elaine’s: though, as in “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

I collected last year’s words in this post.

Veterans Day


“All London Silent at Armistice Hour: Traffic Stops, Men Uncover, and Women Bow Their Heads at 11 o’clock Signal.” The New York Times, November 12, 1919.

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day was observed the next year. In the United Kingdom Armistice Day is now Remembrance Day. In the United States, Armistice Day is now Veterans Day.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

“Language that will clarify”

In The New York Times, a plea from thirty-three writers: “Please use language that will clarify the issues at hand.” “Bribery” or “extortion.” Not “quid pro quo.” “Create false evidence,” “find incriminating evidence,” or “tell lies about.” Not “dig up dirt.”

“89.9, Manahawkin”

When I’m driving at night with the radio on, the announcement of an unfamiliar NPR affiliate’s frequency and location always makes me think of a lonely tower standing at the edge of a field in some tiny village. There may be moonlight. Or the moon may be obscured by clouds. Or there may be no moon at all. Is anyone else listening?

That’s what my imagination does with, say, “89.9, Manahawkin.”

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Greg Johnson, begins with a clue that baffled me: 1-A, seven letters, “Pharaoh-era figurine.” Oh, but look, there’s 1-D, eight letters, “Place to buy inedible peanuts.” And off I went. And I found further gimmes helpfully scattered through the grid: 14-D, eight letters, “+ or -, to mathematicians.” 24-D, eleven letters, “California flag depiction.” 44-D, six letters, “Astronaut who found Eden (1965).” 48-D, six letters, “LeVar’s mom on Roots.”

Three non-gimmes I especially liked: 38-A, nine letters, “What cats crave.” 57-A, seven letters, “How some cars are made.” (BYROBOT? No.) 59-A, seven letters, “Volume control device.” And two clues that, along with 1-A, taught me something: 18-A, seven letters, “Dogood, for Franklin.” And 21-D, four letters, “Word from Old English for ‘useless.’”

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.