Monday, November 05, 2007
One of the young men was blond; he was intelligent and kind and stupid about emotions. The girl expressed anxiety about a test. The tall young man, who was black and thin and seemed to be separate from the other two and wiser but also still innocent, said, “Always believe in yourself.”
He was imitating the easy support of the blond one but it was insincere. I believe he believed her anxieties were well founded not because he knew her but because he trusted her assessment of herself. Of the three of them, I respected him the most.
The girl was cagey but a fool. There was a line of pain in her voice. And she was not telling them what she really felt.
Hedge funds are starting to operate like venture capital outfits I read. Do you find that the firms you audit are doing that?
The tall one mumbled something. He didn’t want to contradict his companion.
And the girl was thinking something like, I need them—I think she was thinking about the white guy—even though they are rubbish, even though I want to be somewhere else besides here, not living, I hope, curled up somewhere, lazy and warm; this is too much for me and I do not want it.
I looked up from the print I was looking at but not reading and I saw her eyes and we looked at each other and I thought, No, that’s wrong; you will learn too late that you do want it.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
There's also the Sopranos, which, who knows about these things, but if I were participating in one of those online betting markets, I would guess, based on my internal future guessing heuristics, will be remembered as the defining cultural marker of the early twenty first century.
There have been a fair number of articles written about this. How HBO discovered some sort of market for quality and catalyzed a golden age of television. I buy it. Those shows are good. They are as good as the best novels. (And better than the best films?)
But what I'm noticing lately is that these shows seem to be everywhere. A dime a dozen.
Note these lines from Nancy Franklin's New Yorker piece on Friday Night Lights:
I took a wait-and-not-see approach to “Friday Night Lights” last year, until an unlikely friend recommended it—a young filmmaker who had grown up in Manhattan in a literary and theatrical milieu and had no interest in sports. We were in the Museum of Natural History when we had this conversation, and when she told me that she and her husband were “addicted” to the show, even the animals in the dioramas were so stunned that they froze in their tracks. The following week, I watched an episode, and went from ignorance to bliss.
It’s hard to say what’s great about “Friday Night Lights” without feeling that you’re emphasizing the wrong thing, because although the show’s particulars are distinctive and special, it seems not to be made up of parts at all—to just be an organic whole. In short, it feels like life. The show isn’t merely set in the world of West Texas football; it is that world. Watching it, you have a feeling of total immersion—in the (fictional) town of Dillon, in the lives of the football players and their parents, and in all the elements that determine people’s fates in that dry, desolate, and depressed part of the country. This sensation is triggered in part by filmmaking technique and in part by the writing and the acting; but much of it is simply alchemical and wonderfully indefinable.
What interests me is the discovery of the show, as Franklin describes it, nearly perfectly describes my experience of the discovery of all the other shows I mentioned . I hear about it, I'm skeptical, I watch it, I don't get it, then I get it, then I'm addicted, I'm smitten, amazed, full of respect. I bet this is exactly what would happen if I were to start watching Friday Night Lights. I bet this is exactly what would happen if I were to start watching Dexter. I bet this is exactly what would happen if I started watching Mad Men.
We've noticed the quality of dramatic television shows, but have we noticed that there is a glut of them?
There was a time that quality was scarce to nonexistent. Now? It's everywhere. I turned on fucking Bionic Woman and it was riveting. It wasn't good. It was silly. But for the ten minutes I didn't know the details and two people were in trouble and they were communicating with each other in a sort of deeply practical--almost technocratic--way, it was riveting. It did something to me. And that makes me wonder whether there has been some tipping point in the evolution of the relationship between dramaturgy in television writing and technique in production whereby the former is just accelerated and magnified and enhanced by the latter.
What the fuck is going on? What does it mean?
Sunday, September 09, 2007
“May I take this to the library to photocopy it?” said William.
“Sure,” she said.
He left the building and went to the library and smoothed the pages of the book with his thumbs and photocopied a few recipes.
“My you're young,” said the woman when he brought the book back.
“I’m twenty seven,” said William.
“Ach,” said the woman. She died a few weeks later while the job was still unfinished. They left her little spot as it was for a few days after they’d heard the news, but then they put it all a way, her teacup, her ashtray, and everything else.
Saturday, September 08, 2007
Francis Fukuyama's ideas about globalization, capitalism, and the 21st century have been, much like (if you take James Wood's word for it) Jonathan Franzen's attempts to match the insanity and grandeur of the culture, shunted aside by 9/11 cathexis. But maybe if more people watched America's Test Kitchen, Fukuyama's theories might hold greater sway. Because what's good about democracy? The extent to which it enables things like America's Test Kitchen to exist.
On America's Test Kitchen they do experiments about how to make food that tastes good. They try different techniques, they compare results, and they are very happy. And they have a large following . Words from founder and editor in chief Christopher Kimball:
There's a huge demand, an appetite, for understanding process in America right now. We have 640,000 paid readers [of Cook's Illustrated], and all of them seem to be really keen on why. And that's a shock to me. I would think that most people wouldn't care, but they do care. And that makes a good cook.Would such an observation be possible in an autocratic state?
(Source: Powells.com interview to promote Baking Illustrated.)
I have no idea, but it's possible in a democracy. That's good. It's so good, I don't even really care about the why, I'm just glad that it's there.
What does it feel like to be Chris Kimball? I bet it feels good.
I've gotten past the point in my life and my psychology were I relentless idealize the lives of others for their simplicity and their general superiority to my own. We all have medical problems and insecurities and regrets. But Chris Kimball pulls me out of my wisdom and makes me think that he is wise, that he has figured out something important.
I imagine him leaving his house in the Boston area to go to work. Is it early in the morning? Is it summer? Is there a breeze blowing through the leaves of the trees that line the street? Is it going to be a scorcher?
Or is it winter and he's scraping the frost off the car or drinking a cup of coffee in his kitchen looking out the window over his sink at the trees in the backyard that have no leaves and the dead grass and his back fence and wondering why his kid put a hula hoop over one of the fence posts?
And what of those of us, even those of us belonging to those billions condemned to work for the entirety of our lives, who have the breathing room to watch his peaceful television show on a saturday morning, soaked in--basted!--in appreciation of the nuances of comparative kitchen spoon quality?
Are our lives not touched by or at least brushed by the feathers of a leisure and a peace that approaches the holy?
We are touched by such a thing. There are costs, to be sure, the whole world is built on blood, but we are touched by such a thing.
Growing the reach of such touching should be the priority of civilization.
Friday, September 07, 2007
Friday, August 31, 2007
I never knew my shirts were so spectacular. Now I'm thinking about them a lot. I noticed my collar in the bathroom mirror. One side was flat/deflated. The other side had a weird fold. I tried to fix it and then I thought, "What the fuck am I doing?"
After that, I decided to just act natural, and left the bathroom.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Anyway--this is one reason I'm looking forward to my baby. She's kind of drugs and eagle at the same time. She'll be stinking of poo and she'll have really bad manners but simultaneously it'll just be a three of us, in a little relatively uncomplicated cocoon, within whose fibers Nadia and spend our time and attention attending to her needs. What better use to put our life skills to?
No running away from life. Making the quotidian miraculous. Kind of like sex, except with diapers and no orgasms.
This is the sort of shit I was thinking about.
I was thinking of this whole chunk of hero narrative psychology I like to bitch about in terms of the shift for which Byron's transition from romantic to ironic is sort of emblematic
But then I'm like--Tristran the shop boy or Manfred the idealist?
They're not in the same league motherfuckers. They're just fucking not.
I shouldn't even make light of it and I'm not sure I am. I just . . . try to think about it simply.
Also--institutional crime. I think I blogged about below. Why? Why can't we a) be more self conscious about the possibility that the systems we set up can have injust consequences for people who don't deserve to be injustly treated?
In England they're giving people degrees in yacht crewing.
I guess this is okay--it's not like they're majoring in english, right--but it also kind of sucks. People's instinctive inclinations toward one craft or another are sound compass I think for life decisons, but somehow I wish these english cats were getting degrees in business.
I went to the french laundry once. It was fine until we started talking about our policies vis a vis giving money to the homeless.
Why did that happen to me? How did I get here?
(I love you, donkey--it's just that everything can't be perfect.)
Whatever. Like I said, I'm an eagle. None of this shit really bothers me.
The only thing I know is the sun and the rumbling in my eagle tummy.
I'll fight the osprey and fucking hunt in his territory. And I'm different from the osprey. I'm a fucking glutton.
If you're lucky you'll know to hide in the kelp. I hate that shit. It stinks too much of life, like when I ate that snail. I cracked that fucker open with my beak and all this fucking rubber shit oozed out.
I prefer mammal meat. I eat the tenderest parts and leave the rest for the turkey vultures.
Some birds don't dig the turkey vultures, but they're all right with me.
Fuck this shit. I'm going to fly into a cloud.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
That's great stuff. That's what stories, as far as solaas goes, are supposed to do.
(Presuming we're not cultural theorists or scientists, in which case you can frame the idea of what stories are "supposed to do" in vastly more rigorous terms. Of course, I do believe in a qualified way some of the ontological claims you can derive from the chaos of conventional human lore. I find them vastly more reliable as a compass for understanding myself than I do cultural theory, though cultural theory has its good points too in this respect.)
But I did not find myself rapturously transported. I felt, as I watched, that we were going through the motions, that neither Neil Gaiman nor the collective producers of this film, excepting the actors to an extent, had put anything in this movie that was not formulaic.
Formulaic is sort of a pop-critical term and one that's often expressed without supporting argument, but it applies to Stardust.
- Story teller voice over performed in the first person plural? Formulaic.
- Young boy with limited prospects hoping to win the love of a popular girl? Formulaic.
- Romance between two people thrust together by circumstance and initially loathing each other? Formulaic.
- Princes competing to become king given an impossible task to determine the heir? Formulaic.
- Helicopter shots rotating around people riding on horseback over grass-covered ridges with mountains in the distance? Maybe not formulaic, but at least derivative. You've seen it in more than one film since Lord of the Rings.
In this case, because it was a character and an actor imported without elaboration from some other work, and because that character/actor is so much a part of the present cultural moment, it stood out particularly as a crib, but to me the film, as I elaborated above, was full of such thefts.
Which would not in most cases doom a film, but in Stardust, there's a near total absence of enthusiasm for the material in the production work. For instance, the primary villain, a witch played by Michelle Pfeiffer, starts of the movie riding around in a cart pulled by two goats. To me, this is one of the few opportunities the narrative provides to do something weird and original. They could have made the goats look menacing or something. But they just made a cart pulled by two goats. And then that's what she traveled around in for a while. That's it.
There are other instances of a failure of imagination. The market town that stands as a sort of transit point between the film's two worlds, ordinary England and mystical Stormhold, is supposed to be a sort of hotbed of orientalist exoticism, but its wierdly sterile. There's a tiny two-headed elephant in a cage and a jar full of eyeballs that actually look at things, but otherwise, it's just a bunch of cages and buildings and a few undistressed curtains slapped together. No real detail.
But the worst thing about the film is the fascism.
That's hyperbole, obviously, but there's this weird innocence about the pleasures the film seems intended to provoke.
It starts with the protagonist's name. It's Tristran. I hate this name. It's just a few steps short of Prince Valiant. And its a variant on a name that's used throughout fantasy novels. I don't have examples, so you'll have to take my word for it. But it's the sort of name given to the sort of strapping but mildly effeminate name given to the sorts heroes that movies like Shrek seek to pillory. Because its the convention, he starts off bumbling and earnest, but by the end of the film, he's got beautiful hair a great outfit and is a master swordsman.
This is the guy were supposed to identify with. Think about the Pirates of the Caribbean films and how there's this sort of id/superego battle in the film's consciousness between the Orlando Bloom character, who is noble and chased, and Captain Sparrow (a much more evocative name than Tristran, btw), who is lecherous, androgynous, unreliable, self-interested, and vastly more interesting. And that franchise, at least in the second film, acknowledges the appeal of the antihero, when the Keira Knightly character makes out with Jack Sparrow and then, almost in an act of homage, betrays him. However psychosexually unhealthy you might deem this, it was mature and knowing. Stardust is neither of those things. In it, every infantile fantasy is fulfilled. The hero defeats everyone and he doesn't just get the girl, he gets to become king, he gets his mom back, and he gets the opportunity to live forever. It's all gold and castles and immortality.
This just isn't material I can wrap my heart around.
The audience I saw it with was entirely in love. And it ives me pause that what produced this response was a combination of deeply formulaic plot construction and some naive and uninhibited wish fulfillment. It makes me wonder about why I respond the way I do to better work than this.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.
This country is as rife with institutional and moral crime as it imagines it is with criminals, conventionally understood. Obviously, it's a complicated issue, but the magnitude of the phenomenon and its connection to race should trouble us greatly. I can't help but think of Madness and Civilization and wonder if we are just adding the concept of minorities to the series that, Foucault posited, started with lepers and moved on to insane, thus deepening our own madness.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Then he went to
Then it was the national badminton championships and during halftime he fucked eighteen people and then a security guard, Jane Fonda, Elijah Wood, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, yet another Alpaca, your dad, you, your mom, your sister, you uncle Craig, Pat Sajack, the skeleton of Abraham Lincoln, then he did that thing where you stretch your penis around and fuck your own self up the ass, and then he fucked Philip Roth, who LOVED it, and then he fucked Shamu 7 and Jessica Tandy at the same time. Then he cyber-fucked that exact list of people over the internet.
Then he went on this wilderness jag where, as a result, he eventually fucked every moose in
Then, to purify himself, he went to
Monday, July 16, 2007
Would an acceptance of this impossibility and a willingness to conduct criticism in a less formal way make it more interesting?
I've always sort of felt that the self-conscious pursuit of a perfectly virtuous and unimpeachably correct political perspective is an impediment to justice, or at least justice in this place/time/greater historical era. Literary criticism and other veins of thought, say philosophy, aren't, as systems, as dynamic and complex as physical/social/political reality, so they would seem a good field in which to spend time establishing a better foundation for the arguments and narratives they support, but there's a limit to the value we derive from examining and/or restating the context and history of our ideas.
I have no idea what that limit might be.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Journalists who fail to do more with their reporting then a smattering of he-said, she-said are bad for the nation.
But reporters sometimes do abandon false equivalwilling to represent as fact or consensus understanding what are in truth ill-considered opinions. This was tragic in the case of the Iraq war when television reporters--there is blood on their hands whether they know it or not--didn't bother to have their producers do any research into the quality of evidence vis a vis Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. As long as enough people in Washington or New York say something is true, the case, in the minds of these reporters, seems to be closed.
However, there are exceptions to this rule and the one I've most recently encountered is pretty infuriating. Read the passage below from "Clintons Adjust to Her Turn in His Old Role" by Patrick Healy (the article is labeled "A Political Memo") and ask yourself why it was that this report chose to abandon the he-said, she said protocol :
No matter how much he tries to blend in, Mr. Clinton is one Oscar-worthy supporting actor who can sometimes upstage his leading lady simply by breathing. The Clintons’ political stagecraft — and their goal of shifting the spotlight to her — has been a work in progress since her presidential campaign began in January. This week, her husband’s first campaign jaunt on her behalf showed him in stages of adjustment — relaxed and jokey at times, a bit unpolished at others.
Oscar worthy. Actor. Leading Lady.
This language is full of scorn and it's not a good way to talk about politicians. Not because it's necessarily inaccurate and not because they're actually extremely noble people, but because it's an extremely subjective judgment. And even if you grant it, the sort of acting that Bill Clinton does when he's campaigning cannot be distinguished from the kind of acting that all other politicians do when they are campaigning. It is also something that politicians must do.
Therefore, reporters, if they want to do something with their work besides draw a paycheck, should do their best to identify the traits and characteristics that will govern a politician's policies and decision making in whatever office they happen to be seeking.
If Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton is performing more than another politician does that mean that we can't believe what they say? Does the reporter have information that suggests Hillary Clinton would push policy or ideology radically at odds with the policies she's pushing as a campaigner? This is the kind of "acting" by a politician that might be worth a front page (on the internet anyway) article. But that's not what we're getting in this lazy material from Patrick Healy. What we're getting is a record of one journalists gossamer impressions of the Clintons on the campaign trail tied in with some vaguely attributed gossip. And it's not as if they're insightful. Take this passage for instance:
He plays good cop and, deftly, bad cop as he tries to elevate Mrs. Clinton by praising her rivals for the Democratic nomination while at the same time putting some of them down. For instance, he has described second-tier opponents like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico in more generous terms than her immediate foes like Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.
So Clinton criticizes Hillary's chief rivals and praises the presumptive also rans? What a scoop!
These are the insights and judgments that the New York Times sees fit to meet the public eye without the fig leaf of false equivalence. No counter quote from a Clinton admirer who says, "actually he looks me in the eye and I know he cares about what I'm saying."
Why? I can only imagine it's because they are arrogant enough to believe that when the story is about the personal and when they themselves are their sources, they have the expertise (because all humans make shallow judgments about one another) and the authority (because they know they are not deceiving us about their shallow judgments) to tell the story without defending it or qualifying it or justifying it.
Journalists have a responsibility to write stories that, to the best of their knowledge are true, even when the story is about nonsense like the one quoted above.
They also have a responsibility to prioritize the material they cover.
So I don't know. Maybe Patrick Healy and his editors at the New York Times think this stuff is significant enough to outweigh other news about the Clintons, or the presidential candidates.
If that's the case, my own personal subjective assessment is that their work falls does not deserve the level of prestige that adheres to it based on their paper's illustrious name. It deserves our contempt.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
A line from the novel
Well, guess what?
(I just prefer that phrase as an interrogative, okay.)
I don't like it anymore. Maybe that bit at the end about her wasting away is good. And the rhythm is nice, but otherwise I diagnose that it does not, as I had previously supposed, manage to transcend the limitations of its genre. I deleted it from the pages of my novel in progress weeks ago.
Bracketing out the randomness of the universe and the effect of events on the political landscape, I don't fear Guiliani in the general election. Given his troubles in the primary, he won't generate any fervor with the republican base, whose evangelical component--to grab one example out of the air--seems to be showing signs of disillusionment/fatigue with their adventures in politics, regardless of the ideology of the republican candidate.
Hillary and Obama, except in terms of rhetoric on the war, haven't made any sort of committed leftward swing, so should be ably to nimbly make the classic push toward the center in the general election. And then it seems to me that Guiliani's centrism, which he'll have to emphasize to court persuadables, will make the democratic candidate more palatable in the eyes of republicans and independants. It's not that an immoderate republican would actually vote for a dem, but that they'd be much less motivated to vote against one. Sort of like all those moron democrats who saw little difference between Gore and Bush.
More important than the above considerations, though, I would say that Rudy's primary campaign slide has less to do with his ideology and a lot to do with what people are learning about both who he is and his track record. A candidate's nature is obscured in the general election by the white noise of so many media representations, but Rudy's gaffes and his checkered past seem to me to have a flavor that punches through that veil. The rhythm of his speech is part of this. W, based on some sort of primitive instinct I think, is much cagier about not ever letting a real emotion come out. Guiliani, on the other hand, seems much more prone to feeling justified in his borishness in a way that a) he can't control and b) is personal in a way that transcends ideology.
Compared to a campaigner as blandly conservative (in approach) as Hillary Clinton, I think it would be difficult for Rudy not to come off as an erratic and generally disagreeable figure.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Self-conscious commentary (not in the novel): Cigarette scenes as a concept, but not necessarily in the execution, frequently strike me as the result of impulses felt by inexperienced writers. It's the same thing as why teenagers smoke--there's some truly significance romance attached to it, a sign signifying something you know does not exist once you've emerged from the state of massive ignorance we, many of us anyway, and I certainly, occupy in adolescence. Another way it's a tic common too teenagers and writers just starting out is that both often don't know what they want to do with their time and feel the act of smoking a cigarette gives purpose to a moment that is, in truth, purposeless. I'm not sure that's not what's happening here, except that it does say something about Amy's character. And also I write purposeless scenes all the time, or used to back when I was writing more and sucked more, but I like this one.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Friday, May 04, 2007
While reading this analysis of Adam Cohen’s NYT piece on Debra Wong Yang, and the role Harriet Myers played in her firing, it occurred to me that this pattern of populating government posts with people who will do the administrations bidding without consideration for the law, professionalism, or precedent (or common decency) explains better than anything else the laughable and politically damaging nomination of Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court. You can imagine them asking themselves, “Why not give it a try? If she gets in there, we can do anything.”
Given that the president seems so blatantly to have been using his power to get his friends off the hook for offenses of naked political corruption and is willing to drag important and noble institutions into the mud and slime in order to accomplish his childish and narrow-minded goals—I mean we’re not even talking about pushing a conservative agenda—the only just legacy for this administration (if you bracket out the tragedy of Iraq) would be universal contempt, scorn, a reputation for giving new meaning to venality.
Also, I would love to see a TPM piece speculating about what happens legally if enough evidence emerges that the administration did what they so obviously did. Say some documents emerge that the president consciously ordered the replacement of US attorneys to prevent corruption prosecutions? He’d have to be impeached, no?
Monday, April 30, 2007
If you go Clementine, a restaurant in San Francisco, you totally owe it to yourself to get the french toast
Neither the media nor the military nor the congress resisted them. With the exception of McLatchy and a few marginalized congressmen and senators and some parts of the state department, these institutions allowed the administration and the republican party the last word on everything, WMDs, troop levels, in the run-up to the Iraq war. When Katrina happened and commentators were presented with the easiest judgement to make--that the gov't had failed in every way--they did not say so.
Only the justice department asserted loyalty to something (anything) other than the administration when the time came.
There's an irony in this, in that there's this sort of meme out there that beuracracy is terrible in a sort of metaphysical, "kafka-esque" sense, yet it was only the strength of the justice department as an institution that repelled the efforts of an administration whose political power was to some extent achieved by professing an ideology whose core tenents include the idea that government and government professionalism are almost always bad, and certainly inferior to some extent to the commen sense of ordinary citizens (forgetting for the moment that republican party leaders in the bush mold are anything but ordinary citizens).
It was the speech and actions of Republican prosecutors that brought to the fore a standard for political action that transcends even the soft-politicization of everything behind which many mindless conservative commentators are trying, or were trying, to obscure the Stalinesque abuses of political power perpetrated by the most corrupt administration in the history of the United States.