Friday, September 28, 2007

Into the Wild

The review I have up at Pajiba today is for a movie that I very highly recommend:
(Sean) Penn is widely regarded as one of our very best acting talents, but based on his previous work behind the camera — particularly in The Crossing Guard — his directorial style could best be described as lugubrious to the point of inert. Given the austere, ultimately tragic facts of Into the Wild, there was every reason to fear that his rendition would consist of one three-hour tracking shot of a stand of frozen pine trees set to Mozart's Requiem on a loop. Instead, the finished product represents a forceful step forward for him.

Archive of the Day

From Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer:
"When Alex left for Alaska," Franz remembers, "I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex."

Wild Race

If you're one of the baseball fans among my readers, you must know that this final weekend of the regular season promises some great drama. In the National League, with three games left, not a single team has clinched one of the four playoff spots. As my dad said this morning, "Not one team, after 159 games. That's mathematically incomprehensible."

The team that looks to be in the best shape (despite the fact that they keep losing) is the Chicago Cubs, who hold a two-game lead in their division. The Chicago Tribune caught up with big Cubs fan Bill Murray before a game the other day (thanks to JF for the link), and this is part of what he had to say:
Bill, there's a theory out there that the Cubs wouldn't be the Cubs if they win the World Series.

That's like saying you wouldn't be you if you were asleep. Isn't that exactly what it's like? I don't accept that (theory), because the Cubs have already won five World Series, and they are the Cubs. Would the Cubs be the Cubs if they lost the World Series? That's sick thinking. You've got to watch out for people like that. I should be watching you. Maybe you want to talk to me later about what's going on in your life.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Kids, Sweet and Not So Sweet

I overheard two funny conversations involving children today. The first was between a girl of 4 or 5 and her young father sitting a table over from me at a pizza place. The girl reached into her mouth, and the following conversation ensued, girl first:
"What does the tongue really do?"

"It helps you taste."

"The tongue?"

"Yeah, it has taste buds on it."

"I thought they just came and went, those bugs."

"Not bugs, buds. They help you taste your food."

"Mmm. They sure do a good job of tasting... But they're not animals?"

"No, they're not insects. They're just bumps on your tongue."
Very soon after that, in a coffee shop, a boy of about eight or nine and his hobo-chic father (think Tom Waits) were talking to a blonde barrista. She had two simple tattoos of a skull and crossbones, one on the inside of each forearm. The father asked, "Why two?" and she said, "To preserve the symmetry of my arms." I think she then talked about another possible addition to her markings, and the young boy said, "Yeah, no big deal. Just get another crappy tattoo." The father smiled and said, "We better be going."

Two Down

I'm through The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, and I wasn't blown away. It's the second novel of hers I've read in the past month or so, the first being The Gate of Angels, which I preferred. Fitzgerald is a careful writer, which I like. I think part of my problem is that she does several things well, but doesn't do any of them particularly well -- the work isn't particularly funny, insightful, or pacey. It's gentle and smart, but its pleasures are much more reliable than captivating.

She's also concerned with social positions and how they affect relationships, a theme that's always left me cold. As opposed to William Trevor, another older, precise writer, who gets inside the minds of his characters, Fitzgerald mostly stands at a slight remove, as in The Bookshop, where the drama rests in the townspeople's various reactions to the opening of the new store and its owner. Didn't get my pulse racing.

The Blue Flower seems to be considered her masterpiece, and I picked up At Freddie's and enjoyed the opening a lot, so I'll probably read those someday. But after these two, I'm in no rush.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Just a Song Today

With an enthusiastic movie review coming Friday and the giant Cormac McCarthy post ready to go, I figure the blog could use a couple of light days to give your eyeballs a rest. (Plus, traffic hasn't been all that heavy this week, and I have a dozen other things I should be working on.) So, today I'm just posting this week's musical number -- Elvis Costello singing "I Know," one of my favorite Fiona Apple songs. I'll put up a few brief things over the next couple of days, and then start hammering you again next week. Deal?

Enjoy Elvis:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


One down, nine to go in my bid to resist consumerism. (I even managed to enter a bookstore today, pick up the new Richard Russo novel, and leave without buying it. I'm exhausted from the effort.)

Angels by Denis Johnson was a hell of a way to start my checklist, one of the most original novels I've read, poetic but propulsive (an endangered combination). It's also heartbreakingly sad and suddenly funny, leaving you feeling like you might if you listened to the dialogue from Raising Arizona while strolling through an exhibit of Dorothea Lange photos.

Johnson's new, sprawling novel, Tree of Smoke, is getting a lot of attention, and I wanted to read Angels (his debut, from 1983) and reread Jesus' Son (1992) before I eventually tackle it.

The story centers on Bill Houston (always referred to by first and last name in the novel), an ex-Navy man, one of three brothers who are troublemakers mostly because they're a bit too dim to be anything else, and Jamie Mays, a mother of two young children fleeing an abusive husband in California. The two meet on a cross-country bus, making their way to the Rust Belt before heading back west to spend time with Bill Houston's family in Arizona.

Here's a sense of the book’s humor, in a scene when the two are wandering around Pittsburgh:
Horrible gargoyles jutted from the walls around them. They moved along the sidewalk under the streetlamps, among the headlights, and Jamie shouted over the traffic noise, "Well I don't care if it is far. Let's us just go to Philadelphia. I never been there either. I never been any goddamn place."

"Now in my estimation," Bill Houston said, "there just ain't nothing in Philadelphia.”

"Liberty Bell's something, ain't it? You going to tell me it's just nothing, just because it's in Philadelphia and you say there ain't nothing there?"

"The Liberty Bell ain't nothing to do. Ain't even anything to talk about. Talk about something else.”

"It ain't so far to Philly," she said. "What about our forefathers?"

He began to draw ahead of her, a stranger to this woman a bit behind and to the left of him. "I would love to see the Washington Monument because it doesn't piss around. It's tall. One other thing is those four big statues of faces carved out of a mountain. But they ain't neither of them in Pittsburgh or Philly. Only thing in this state's the Liberty Bell, and that's just a bell -- know what I mean? A bell."
Johnson has a perfect instinct for when to leaven the grit with a laugh, but he doesn't flinch when his hardscrabble, self-destructive characters get themselves into trouble. Jamie's encounter with a con man in Chicago leads to her being drugged and raped, and the reader sees the danger of her trusting him long before she does. Soon after that attack, Bill Houston tracks her down, and Johnson again exhibits an uncanny ability to mix tones:
He found her at the Children's Services Division in the afternoon, napping in a chair of torn-and-taped imitation leather. Baby Ellen lay in her lap, and a few chairs away Miranda disputed with a little baldheaded boy about the possession of a coloring book. The place smelled like an ashtray. Everybody was black or foreign or deformed. There were people with crutches and people clutching soiled magazines to their chest, and children all around them. He leaned close and said, "Jamie," hoping he was being quiet enough.

When she opened her eyes she said, "I been looking for you."

"Well, you found me. How about us getting out of here?"

"I got to fill out some more forms, I think." She looked around, apparently trying to locate herself among these others.

"Shit. Once they start you on filling out forms, it just don't ever end.” He tried to think of a way of explaining to her that even now, as the two of them dawdled here, these people were inventing the forms that would defeat her grandchildren.
I'll leave you with just one more excerpt, because it's one of my favorites, and I want to make it as clear as possible that you should read this book. (As for me, I'm almost done with my rereading of Jesus' Son, a brief collection of linked short stories, including a gem called "Emergency." Then it's back to the official list of ten with The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, a slight thing that shouldn't take more than a day or two.)

Here's Jamie again, speaking to a panel of four people, trying to prove her sanity, hoping to be released from a psychiatric ward, where she's had delusions, among other things (thus the comment about the Empire State Building):
"How are you feeling today?" the Welfare lady asked.

"Nervous," Jamie said.

Nervous was the wrong word. She could see that instantly.

"I mean, I have my problems," she said, "but I don’t think this is the Empire State Building, or anything like that."

They shifted in their seats.

"You're just nervous about being here," Dr. Wrigley said.

"You got it," Jamie said.

Everybody nodded. When she said the wrong thing, the bodies shifted. When she said the right thing, the heads went up and down.

Dr. Wrigley wasn't the only man with a chart. There was another, Dr. Benvenuto, who flipped his pages and said, "Jamie, what do you see yourself doing ten years from now?"

She closed her eyes and it came before her like a vision. "I'll be watching a color TV and smoking a Winston-brand cigaret."

That made their heads go up and down wildly. They loved that one.

Epstein on the Scene

Twenty-five years after he wrote an essay on the same subject for The New Criterion, Joseph Epstein has a look at "the literary situation of the day." He's not short on opinions:
The great poet of the day, if received opinion is to be regarded, is not English but Irish, Seamus Heaney. I wish I knew why. He seems like a poet: he is amiable, rough-hewn in appearance, determinedly not cosmopolitan, Celtic to the highest power. I only wish I could recall a single phrase from the perhaps hundred or so of his poems that I've read. But every age must have a great poet, whether he truly exists or not, and Seamus Heaney is apparently the man appointed for the job.
The several paragraphs on the broader poetry scene that follow his thoughts on Heaney are worth the price of admission. They begin with this:
Poor poetry, it is the Darfur of twenty-first century literature. Everyone wants to do something about it, but nobody quite knows what is to be done.
I also enjoyed this, being a big Russo fan and having not felt much for The Corrections myself:
Richard Russo is a novelist who emerged over the past quarter century. He writes, among other things, about working-class life in upstate New York, and does so with the bone knowledge that derives from his being of that class and from an imaginative sympathy with its members that allows him to understand their yearnings and fears. Some while ago I was asked to write about Russo's novel Empire Falls and a novel by Jonathan Franzen called The Corrections, which is steeped in hatred
for the middle-class from which Franzen derived. The comparison between the two novels reminded me of an essay Matthew Arnold wrote about the difference between Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, which was that Tolstoy, the larger-hearted man, came to love his heroine and Flaubert never veered from his loathing for his. A good heart remains the first requisite for a great novelist.
Epstein can veer toward being overly proud of his conservatism (as when he mentions in passing that he hasn't read many current-day international writers), but for strong feelings about Susan Sontag, British literature, David Foster Wallace, and many other writers and movements, stylishly expressed, the whole thing's worth reading.

(Via A New Career In a New Town)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Notes on Mom & Dad

The trip this weekend (see post below) was about five hours each way, with one gas/food stop, and Mom introduced me to an enjoyable method of passing highway time -- crossword puzzles. From the passenger side, she would work on the puzzle and recite clues to me so I could help. The only small problem is that being told the number of spaces and letters without being able to see the page grows a bit maddening. "It's nine letters and I've got blank-B-blank-blank-A-D-blank-blank-S."


Mom's also good to have along on a car ride because she's observant and she has a quirky way of processing her observations. For instance, we passed three picturesque graveyards on the way up, the third of which prompted this comment from her:

"That cemetery had a funny name. It was called Lake View." After laughing to herself for a few seconds, she said, "The visitors get one anyway, I guess."

My Dad went to Cornell, and was a standout baseball player there. He still holds, as far as I can tell, the school's record for career ERA (1.06). That fact is listed here, though it says he compiled his stats from 1979-1982. Those are, um, not the right years. I found a PDF of the school's baseball program from 2004, which also says he holds the record -- and gets the years right.

Anyway, here he is posing with the guys back when:

And here he is in action, sporting the white-man's overbite, which is much cooler when pitching than when dancing:


You're probably sick of me writing about my wanderlust, but that's OK; I think you're supposed to get sick of a blogger's preoccupations. I need to check my handbook again, but I'm pretty sure.

I spent the past couple of days in Ithaca, New York, probably the one specific place my wanderlust has been most fiercely attached to, primarily from the years 1997-2000. Those were the years when my younger sister was in school there, and I made the trip from Texas several times to visit her. The last time I was there, a little more than seven years ago (gulp), I was strongly considering a move there, figuring I would have company for at least my sister's last few months of school and could reevaluate things after that. This was in the wake of a bad break-up (double gulp), but that wasn't the fuel for my desire to flee. Part of it was that anytime I traveled to the northeast in October or November, the difference in the air (literal air, not metaphorical) alone triggered my homing device. Part of it was that the atmosphere around Cornell seemed to represent the Platonic college experience in a way that the atmosphere around my university didn't, and visiting Ithaca always stoked whatever regret I had about not coming back north for school. (Meaning, part of it was my longstanding desire to live in a past that can no longer occur, which makes this whole life thing not great.) Lastly, subconscious motivations aside, Ithaca's just really, really, astoundingly pretty (see above).

I figured this latest trip -- centered around seeing my supremely talented brother-in-law in a play -- would shatter the rose-colored glasses I'd been wearing whenever I looked back on the times I spent there. Well, the lenses threatened to crack, but they certainly didn't shatter. It's true that what seemed most appealing about the place back then -- a different kind of collegiate experience -- is off my radar today. College students now look to me like they're approximately five years old. It's also true that a large used-books store that I remembered as terrific was a little underwhelming this time around. Still, the natural beauty remains, and the large university means there will always be a level of cultural life that doesn't exist in most smaller, quieter places. In other words, the dream lives.

Back to Basics

I don't know what sick souls look forward to the "Style Issue" of The New Yorker, which appeared again last week, but I hope to never meet them. If I already know them, but they're keeping their fondness for this issue secret from me, they should continue harboring their illicit love. I don't wanna know.

This week, the magazine focuses on fall books, much more suited to its strengths. There's Louis Menand on the Beats and On the Road, John Updike on Ann Patchett's new novel, James Wood's first piece as a staff writer (on a new translation of the Psalms), and a couple of movies reviewed by Anthony Lane for grade-A dessert. I haven't even started reading it yet, but I'm just saying; you might want to pick up a copy so we can discuss.

A Brief Note on Etiquette Inspired by Something I Just Witnessed in Starbucks

If you're rolling a baby in a big bassinet, and you ram that bassinet into someone who's sitting and studying, you should apologize to him or her, not smile like it's cute that the baby rammed into them.

The baby, not being ambulatory yet, did not ram into them. You did.

Oh, Enough

Who's more tiresome than Radiohead? This headline on Pitchfork today would be the straw that broke the camel's back, if the camel hadn't been snapped entirely in half about three years ago:
Radiohead Post Encrypted Messages on Website
When they're done encrypting, could they pick up a guitar or two? Because it's bad enough having to comb through whatever increasingly ambient nonsense they're recording in order to find the decent song or two -- do I really have to keep watching as they finally become embarrassing performance artists?

(I'm back from a weekend trip, and should have a bunch of stuff to post this week, beginning later tonight. Just needed to get this rant out first. Thanks.)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Signs of (and in) the Times

Two quick notes on this Friday:

Andrew Sullivan links to this post by Jason Kottke, which looks back at some significant moments in the New York Times archives. (This is in celebration of the fact that the Times just made access to the archives free of charge.) Here's what's creeping me out a little. The paper's first mention of the World Wide Web came in February 1993. Here's a taste of the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer-like tone:
The Internet is a web of networks with shared software standards, allowing users on one network to reach anywhere into a global thicket.
One businesswoman interviewed for the piece proclaimed:
"I'm an electronic mail addict," she said. "People can find me wherever I am. I have negotiated several business deals recently without even using a telephone."
Without using a telephone? Wha?!

It's crazy to think that 1993 -- the year Pearl Jam released Vs., the year Clinton was sworn in, the year I wore too many flannel shirts and made the dreadful decision to grow my hair long -- was the first time the web was mentioned in the Times, and now, 14 short years later, that businesswoman who was so happy to be found wherever she is can be found in her shower through the bathroom window by anyone with Google Earth.

Unrelated, except not...I saw this handwritten sign taped to the cash register of a local pizza place today:
Please no talking on cell phones while ordering.
Not even while in the restaurant. No. While ordering. In other words, stop finding each other so often that you become a mob of rude jackasses.

Oh, too late?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Archive of the Day

"Losses" by Randall Jarrell

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes-- and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores--
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn't different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions--
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."

They said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.

It was not dying --no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: "Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?"

Giuliani and Past Casualties

Being in Manhattan on 9/11, I know that the part of Rudy Giuliani's reputation earned that day is legit. For anyone who didn't lose someone (or just temporarily lose track of someone) that morning, everything became really sad starting the day and night after, but the day of, it's more accurate to say that things were surreal. And Giuliani did seem like the only person who was reacting immediately like a level-headed adult, with the right combination of grief and fortitude. Early that afternoon, while my girlfriend and I sat at a diner on the east side of midtown, looking at the smoke on television where the towers used to be and feeling too stunned to process much, he was the only person who occasionally appeared on screen and attempted to talk to us.

Still, I'm shocked -- given how the six years since have played -- that he's the front-running Republican candidate for president. I've always thought his controlling personality and reliance on tough-love techniques made him much better suited to run a city like New York than an entire country like the U.S. And given that Bush's approval ratings are so low, it surprises me that someone who frequently echoes his talking points on the war is in the lead. But then, Romney, Thompson, Huckabee and Paul (not a law firm) don't seem like very stiff competition. For that reason, I still think McCain will have his say before the curtain falls, but others more knowledgeable than me are unconvinced of that.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to a column by Niall Ferguson, in which he argues against a Giuliani candidacy. I'm with him on that (though not strictly for the reasons he lists), but I was more struck by this statistic, during Ferguson's comparison of the current conflict with the years 1941-42, emphasis mine:
The Islamists have thousands rather than millions of trained warriors. Their most dangerous weapons are land mines and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, not aircraft carriers and guided missiles. The total number of American fatalities that can be attributed to this supposed world war is about 6,000 (adding together 9/11 victims with U.S. passports and the service personnel killed in action in Iraq). On average, the Axis powers killed about 20,000 Allied soldiers and civilians a day.
I don't place that emphasis in order to make some connection between the two wars, or our feelings about them, but because it always astonishes me to consider casualties in past battles. Born in 1974, I've only known an America in which war fatalities cause ... not more suffering in the people directly affected, certainly, but presumably greater consternation in the public at large. Maybe because of my birth date (could it be that arbitrary?), I share that feeling. I just wonder if the perceived justness of the cause alone made it "easier" to accept such statistics before Vietnam (if it's even true that it was somehow easier), or what role the mass media plays, or what role the more encouraged emotionalism of men plays, etc.

Again, I bring it up because I find it thought-provoking, not because I have any illuminating thoughts of my own about it.

(Ferguson's column via Andrew Sullivan)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wednesday Song

The Be Good Tanyas performing "Scattered Leaves." Enjoy:

New Links and Fresh Dismay

In conjunction with the post below, I've spruced up the blogroll and created a "movies" category. It includes The Criterion Contraption, whose author, Matthew Dessem, is writing about every DVD in The Criterion Collection. Dessem's thorough reviews, filled with illustrative still frames, are great. I was glad he hadn't gotten around to The Spirit of the Beehive yet. (But I’m eager to read it when he does.)

He says his next post will be a review of Chasing Amy, which leads me to exclaim: Chasing Amy made The Criterion Collection!!?? I know the vaunted imprint is not averse to recognizing current filmmakers or including work by them that isn't up to their best stuff (see: The Life Aquatic), but Chasing Amy? I suppose it's more mature than Kevin Smith's other work, but that's like saying Theatre of Pain is more mature than Shout at the Devil.

I'm stunned.

Anyway, enjoy the new movie links, and please don't let the torrent of a post directly below this one keep you from finding the AP headline a little further down the page -- it's one of my favorite recent examples of the genre.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Spirit of the Beehive

I first heard of The Spirit of the Beehive while researching a piece about my favorite performances by child actors. I discovered it too late to include it, and I just got around to renting it -- well, in March, since which time it had been sitting around in a Netflix envelope. (I've recently gotten better about it, but for a few months there Netflix was a pretty boneheaded investment on my part.)

Directed by Victor Erice and released in 1973, the movie is set in the Spanish countryside in 1940, just after the end of the civil war that established the dictatorship of General Franco (who would die two years after the movie was made). It popped up during my research because of Ana Torrent (left, above), who plays six-year-old Ana. The plot revolves around Ana’s state of mind after she and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) attend a local screening of Frankenstein. (The horror movie arrives by way of a traveling cinema company, and it's shown on a wall in one of the small town's many deteriorating stone buildings.)

The story, though affecting and well told, is spare and might not have been enough to carry a less brilliantly composed movie. What's most remarkable about Beehive is its visual beauty. The cast is terrific, the sound is well designed, and the evocation of both the boredom and imagination of childhood is acute, but it's the cinematography that allows all of those successes to stay with you.

Framed like a series of timeless photographs, and filled with what one critic called "a clear, wintry light," Beehive’s cinematography was handled by Luís Cuadrado, who was suffering at the time from an encroaching blindness that eventually ended his career.

Cuadrado regularly sets the small girls against the enormity of their environment:

Somewhere in those vast expanses, the sisters come upon an abandoned farm building, where they waste a few hours. Visiting the spot alone one day, Ana finds a wounded soldier using the space as a hideout. Her discovery of him mirrors the little girl's discovery of the monster in Frankenstein. Already obsessed with the idea of death and spirits from having seen the movie, Ana is eventually traumatized by her experiences.

I would knock the way we live now and say that Beehive is visually precise and sumptuous in a way that movies rarely even attempt anymore, but I’m not sure they’ve ever regularly strived for this kind of sustained beauty.

But while it can be appreciated on a purely visual level by anyone who doesn't mind quiet and stillness (the script is very good, but the story is mostly told through images), knowing the background helps deepen its power. Paul Julian Smith elucidates the context in an essay for The Criterion Collection:
Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful "quality" films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally, which was at that time dominated by crude, mainstream comedies. By the early seventies, these policies had led to the production and export of many experimental and even discreetly oppositional films, although, of course, no overtly leftist movies could be made. The gaping holes in the plot of The Spirit of the Beehive and the mysterious motivations of its characters are typical of this "Francoist aesthetic," a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of the time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period as a form of indirect critique. ...

The question of how political The Spirit of the Beehive is has been hotly debated since the film's premiere, when leftist critics attacked its lack of overt commentary. Yet to equate Franco and Frankenstein as twin masters of horror is too crude. By focusing not on national conflict but on domestic distress, what one reviewer called "the war behind the window," Erice gives a much more subtle and moving take on the historical trauma suffered by Spain in the twentieth century.
You may have already guessed that the movie has quite a bit in common with last year's Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro's fantasy-horror story set in rural Spain in 1944. As J. Hoberman wrote of the two movies in The Village Voice:
Although utterly different types of filmmaking, each of these is the story of a brave little girl lost in a world of make-believe—at once an intuitive anti-fascist and the innocent victim of a monstrous system.
I don't know if they're "utterly" different, since they not only share a historical setting, but a similarly intended use of allegory and an attention to visual detail. Del Toro was asked if his film was inspired by Beehive, and he said this:
It could be. Not consciously. I nevertheless must admit that Spirit of the Beehive is one of those seminal movies that seeped into my very soul.
He has also said:
I think that in The Spirit of the Beehive, what is beautiful about it, is that it's sedate, the tone of it is much more sedate. Mine is furiously symbolistic, if you want. (Beehive) is sort of everyday life and then there is only one fantastic element echoing at the end of the movie. Such brilliance. Mine is you know, far more baroque.
His is also a lot more graphic and menacing, which almost sent me scurrying from the theater even as I marveled at the overall accomplishment.

Both movies are well worth seeing, and they offer an opportunity for comparison that's hard to refuse. But I meant to write about Beehive on its own merits. It's one of a handful of the best sensory experiences I've had with movies, and it's lingered strongly in the few weeks since I watched it.

AP Headline of the Day

Someone Tries to Sell Belgium on eBay

Resisting Consumerism

When I wrote the other day about not buying books for a while, I didn't give specific examples of why this would be tremendously difficult. For one, there's Junot Diaz's new, longlonglong-awaited novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and a collection of essays by Luc Sante, and of course, next week, a new novel from one of my two or three favorite writers, Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Dwight Garner points out that the Boston Globe ran a review of Bridge last weekend, and signs point to yes:
That Russo manages to juggle so many characters, themes, places, and time periods through 528 delicious pages is an astounding achievement. From its lovely beginning to its exquisite, perfect end, Russo has written a masterpiece.
A good friend of mine got me an advance galley of the novel, and I've dipped in, but a Russo hardcover is a must-have for the library.

What I'm trying to say is that maybe the fall wasn't the best time to embark on this anti-consumerist experiment.

Monday, September 17, 2007

No End in Sight

My latest review at Pajiba, a 1,500-word monster:
Which is to say that in some alternate universe, George W. Bush might be someone who lived a modest life in a modest place, telling the occasional inappropriate joke, harboring prejudices of a severity and consequence not much different than the prejudices harbored by almost all people, working just enough to appreciate his weekends and eventual retirement, and enjoying an 89% approval rating among his friends and family. The world needs that kind of leadership, too, and I mean that.

Unfortunately, as ever, we occupy this universe.

A Reading Plan

On Friday, I bought one book and I ordered another one that's relatively rare. The one I bought is Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Kaplan is an artist responsible for my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon, which I can't find in a format that reproduces largely enough on the blog. It shows a man and woman peering out at an awe-inspiring scene of nature, perhaps a large canyon, and the man says, "It makes me realize how small you are."

The book is a brief, illustrated one that follows the titular couple as Edmund realizes that they are not, in fact, living in Brooklyn, but in Hell. The illustrations are simple and blocky, and the story gets most of its laughs from good aphoristic writing. For instance: "Pets are so interesting, even though they never really do anything, which is the exact opposite of people."

The other book is This Was Racing by Joe Palmer, a collection of work by a renowned old horse racing writer.

I only tell you this because I'm going on a brief book-buying sabbatical, and even that's not a very good reason to tell you.

I've long known that I buy books faster than I can read them, and this method isn't without purpose. First, I intend to read all of them. Secondly, it's aesthetically pleasing to me to have many books, which are some of the only objects I really care about in the world. Thirdly, and most importantly, since I intend to read them all, the buying of them provides me with the illusion that I will have the amount of time I need to read them, so that the optimum number of books to buy would be an infinite one, thus making me feel something like immortal. Of course, even with the tens of thousands of books published each year, there aren't nearly enough good ones to stretch my need for reading hours to infinity. Maybe to 3075 or so.

In any case, even though I've been going through books very regularly these days, I do think it's wise to occasionally put a dent in the "to do" pile before adding to it. So, I've lined up 10 books that I plan to read before buying another. They are:

Angels by Denis Johnson
Discovering Modernism by Louis Menand
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
World's Fair by E.L. Doctorow
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson
Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

You may notice none of these books is particularly long. This is because it's ambitious enough for me to try something like this. No need to get crazy about it.

There's a caveat attached to this plan, too. I'm going to Ithaca next weekend for the first time in several years, and if the terrific used-books store I remember on the outskirts of town is still there, I'll have to be allowed to spend a reasonable amount on additions to my library, since I don't make it back there often. It's only reasonable. Or as reasonable as my addiction allows.

Polly Wants an Obit

By now, you've all heard about the extraordinary parrot named Alex who recently died. I'm timely like this. George Johnson had a good piece in Sunday's Times about the story:
He is survived by his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, a prominent comparative psychologist, and a scientific community divided over whether creatures other than human are more than automatons, enjoying some kind of inner life.

Skeptics have long dismissed Dr. Pepperberg’s successes with Alex as a subtle form of conditioning — no deeper philosophically than teaching a pigeon to peck at a moving spot by bribing it with grain. But the radical behaviorists once said the same thing about people: that what we take for thinking, hoping, even theorizing, is all just stimulus and response.
I liked Johnson's last paragraph a lot, but I'll let you get to it yourself.

I wonder, though, if Johnson isn't overreaching with the word "automatons." The primary definition of an automaton is a robot, or "a mechanical figure or contrivance constructed to act as if by its own motive power." The slightly more gentle and reasonable definition (as it applies here) is "a person or animal that acts in a monotonous, routine manner, without active intelligence." Still, does a large part of the scientific community really believe all creatures other than humans are automatons? I doubt that.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Meeting in Park Slope

For all of the reasons to feel ambivalent, at best, about living in New York -- reasons I've been documenting with some regularity -- it's good to be reminded of the many reasons to love it. And one of those is that random, funny things happen on the street all the time.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, there are often Orthodox Jewish men standing on corners, asking people who walk by if they're Jewish. My answer is no, and initially I figured this was the answer they were looking for, in order to make a pitch, but then I remembered it's Christians who are the proselytizers. So I've often been tempted to say yes, just to see what type of conversation would follow.

This morning, a Jewish friend and I were walking together when we passed an Orthodox young man (probably 17 or so) holding a shofar, a horned instrument. He asked if we were Jewish. Neither of us broke stride. I said, "No, I'm not," and my friend said, "Never met a Jew."

We stopped further down the block, preparing to go separate ways, and I asked my friend if he knew what a "yes" would bring. He wasn't sure. Then we turned to see the teenager approaching us with a smile on his face.

"Would you like to hear the shofar?" he said, holding up the horn. "It's Rosh Hashanah."

"Yeah, I've heard," my friend said. "Now, what if we said we were Jewish? What would happen?"

"I would ask if you wanted to hear the shofar."

"That's it? That's all that would happen?"


"OK, I'm Jewish."

"I guessed that," the young man said, smiling again.

"How'd you guess?" my friend asked sarcastically, pointing to his face. "It was the nose, right?"

"No. Only a Jew would say, 'Never met a Jew.' "

Thursday, September 13, 2007

New York, Sky Country

(All the pictures in this entry have been manipulated. Some more shots over at the photo blog.)


Stephen Hawking discusses The Simpsons (via Andrew Sullivan). ... I'd been hearing noises about this TV commercial set to a Phil Collins song, but I had no idea it was so long, so unrelated to the product, and so (brilliantly) bizarre. ... Dwight Garner links to a great clip of Glenn Danzig showing off some of his book collection (and clearly not taking himself very seriously). ... Leonard Bast shares his thoughts on Sentimental Education, and also spotlights this thought from Flaubert: "Do not read, as children read, to amuse yourself, nor as the ambitious read, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live."

On a Bookstore

The gracious Maud Newton allowed me to write about one of my favorite bookstores for a series on her site, and the result can be found here.

A Day Late, But Worth the Wait

Yesterday was spent running various errands and spending some time with my nephew and getting further into season 3 of The Wire, which now has its hooks in me something fierce. So, the Wednesday song got lost in the shuffle. But I think I'm making up for it with a doozy. I had only vaguely remembered that Johnny Cash had a TV show from 1969-1971, on which he hosted many famous musicians. A best-of DVD is scheduled to come out next week. Here's Cash playing "Blue Yodel No. 9" with the great Louis Armstrong:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Line of the Day

"I admire (Philip) Roth's novels a lot, but the last few have (made) me want to hire him a hooker."

--Carrie Frye, of About Last Night

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

I saw seven previews before Dedication the other day, and thank God the fall movie season is upon us. Seven would be far too many if they were all for movies about Jamie Kennedy waking out of a coma to find that he's a fast food worker on Jupiter or Cuba Gooding Jr. teaching children how to run a kennel or whatever pain summer movies are inflicting these days. Instead, the future looks -- if not bright, not desolate. There were a few likely duds, including The Jane Austen Book Club, whose charming, leggy leads appear to take the work of arguably the greatest female writer of all time and reduce it to The Rules so that they can land commitment-phobic men. Pass.

But three teasers, all of which I've seen before, caught my attention:

I'm Not There is Todd Haynes' biopic about Bob Dylan, and it's gotten a lot of press for the fact that six different people, including Cate Blanchett and a young black actor named Marcus Carl Franklin, portray the singer at different stages of his life. There are a lot of potential potholes here -- the casting gimmick could be refreshing/brilliant, or it could be pointless/irritating; the Haynes movies I've seen haven't left much of an impression on me, except the laughable Safe, which left the impression that I shouldn't seek out any more Haynes movies; and the graphics that alternately flash in the preview that say "He is Everyone" and "He is No One" are just the kind of metaphysical gibberish that represents the worst of Dylanmania.

Still, Blanchett looks great in the clip, and it's an ambitious enough project to be high on my list of must-sees in the fall.

Reservation Road stars Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix. On the plus side, it looks tense and dramatic, and the preview doesn't give away too much (if anything, it makes it tough to tell what exactly is going on). On the negative side, the preview includes characters earnestly saying the following: "I don't know how to get you back" and "Sometimes things happen that are out of your control, and those are the times when you just really gotta stand up and be a man." Oy. Still, to repeat, it stars Ruffalo and Phoenix, for my money two of the very best movie actors currently working.

Lastly, there's Wes Anderson's latest, The Darjeeling Limited. This past weekend, I tried desperately to overpay for the privilege of getting tickets to see it on the opening night of the New York Film Festival, but like so many cultural offerings in this city, the lines and hassle made it both annoying and eventually impossible to do.

While Anderson's features, for me, have each represented a step down from the previous one, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore would both make a pretty short list of my favorite movies, and only The Life Aquatic was a real mess (and even that had its moments). Darjeeling has a great cast, and looks like a potential return to funny/absurd/poignant form. Here's hoping. And here's the preview:

I'm in Tatters. Shattered!

Not much to say about these photographs by Martin Klimas except that they're cool. See more here.

(Via The Morning News)


My latest at Pajiba:
Dedication has a lot of things going against it — romantic contrivances, characters conversing with spirits (spectral, not alcoholic), and overuse of indie-rock songs and visual gimmicks to cue emotional responses, to name three. But it has one big thing going for it — Billy Crudup.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Ratio of Others' Words to My Own

I know that some of you -- well, one or two of you, at least -- slightly prefer my own ramblings to the posts that depend mostly on links and excerpts, like the three immediately below. I appreciate that. These days, I'm a bit busy working on a couple of other things, things that may or may not go anywhere but might lead to things like fame or at least a living wage, and the posts with links/excerpts are obviously much easier to throw together.

But I am working on a few longer things for here, including my long-promised (and eagerly-awaited, I'm sure) thoughts on The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I also saw an old movie over the weekend that I'm going to write about in the next day or two. And knowing my history with such pointless updates, I'm likely to go on a three-week tear starting tomorrow during which I only ramble and don't link to a damn thing. Such is the coherent, directed project that is ASWOBA.

As you were.

Swissification, War Liberals, and Fertilizer

2 Blowhards posted a very long interview with Gregory Cochran, who I'd heard of through his work on the possible evolutionary explanations for the average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews. I haven't read nearly this whole interview yet (I'm serious, it's long; and another part is forthcoming!), but at first glance I thought these two excerpts were entertaining:
2B: Under what kinds of circumstances does it make sense for you for the US to go to war?

Cochran: If someone else started to build up a power that threatened to become overwhelming, such that straight-line extrapolation said they'd be able to run all the shows in the near future, a war that put a spoke in their wheel would be worthwhile. Particularly if the gathering threat were infamous assholes, as has been known to happen. Now dealing with some country whose power was expanding solely because of their charm and efficiency -- creeping Swissification -- would raise new and intriguing questions. If that ever happens, maybe we should just surrender.

2B: You make some of the same points that the Chomskyan left makes. In what ways do your views of our military efforts differ from those on the kneejerk left?

Cochran: I'm not all that familiar with Chomsky's political views, although I do know that he has said unsound things about the evolution of language. If he thinks that we were worse than the Russians in the Cold War, I disagree. If he thinks that evil rational reasons are at the core of US international policy generally, I also disagree. I think it's more stupidity.

I probably know more about current left opinion on the Web: I hear a lot of talk about mercenary motives for the Iraq war and I doubt it. There are far easier ways to steal, if that's you want.

I think that they usually have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to facts. ... I think they were close to right on Iraq, a totally pointless war, but I think it's a coincidence. I think they, like everyone else, have not bothered to acquire the sorts of knowledge that allow to judge whether something made sense or not. I think that they, like almost everyone else, are more interested in supporting the "side" than the truth. Although, with Bush, they don't have to lie. Who knows, maybe they'll get in the habit of telling the truth.

I'm neglecting "war liberals," a separate category of chuckleheads.

As for the 'kneejerk right', at this point I think I'd bag them and sell them for fertilizer.

Living at the Gym, Literally

Gilbert Arenas is a phenomenally talented pro basketball player, and the keeper of a notoriously quirky and revealing blog. I don't really keep up with it, but I suppose one recent post about a disagreement he had with his girlfriend (about the messy state of a car) is a classic example:
I think all men should do this when they have a disagreement. This is Relationship 101. When you have a fight with "the other," don’t answer their calls and don't answer their pages. That usually gets the point across that you're not talking to them. So, I held out for seven days. I went on strike for seven days and stayed at the gym for seven days. I slept in the gym. They got nice couches in there and it just kept me in the gym working on my knee and stuff.

So, back to the EA event, I didn't have a passport or driver's license to actually go to Canada because I was on strike and I didn't want to go back to the house because she kicked me out. She kicked me out of the car on a Sunday, I had to wait till the following Sunday to talk to her again. Now we're good. She just got her car registered two days ago, we're waiting on that to be finalized but my dad's car still looks like trash day.

You know, it's "the life." Everybody thinks we have easy lives, but hey, if you don't want to argue and you don't want to fight, take the high road and sleep in a gym.
OK, I'm browsing more of the blog because of this, and I can't believe I don't read it more regularly. I had heard a lot about it, but experiencing it for myself seems wise. It's on the blogroll now, in fact.

(From my friend NT, via my friend the Good Doctor)

Wonderland, Not So Wonderful

Steven Crist returns to Wonderland, a dog racing track, and is disappointed -- again:
I spent four or five nights a week there from 1976 to 1978, then returned for the first time 22 years later, toward the end of the Handicapalooza tour I did with Mike Watchmaker. It was devastating. I wrote in a column for the July 25, 2000 Daily Racing Form:

"The pilgrimage was disheartening. We remembered Wonderland as a charmed place, a bustling little quarter-mile oval with packed stands and a busy grandstand apron. What we found was a grim and silent simulcasting factory with lots of television monitors but little energy. In the clubhouse dining room, no one even bothered turning up the sound to alert you that Swifty the mechanical rabbit was beginning his appointed rounds and the race was about to start."

I tried again in 2003, during what may have been the first and was certainly the last book signing ever held at a dog track. My chief memory of the event is that the guy who used a boxcutter to open the two cartons of books we had ambitiously sent also opened a crucial vein on his arm, spraying every copy with his bloody autograph. I choose to believe that's the only reason we sold roughly two (2) copies.

Friday, September 07, 2007

What Leads You to Me

Mrs. White over at Pretty to Think So recently shared two Google searches that had brought someone (the same person each time) to her blog, and they're terrific:
"my wife makes me wish I were dead!"

"I think my wife is nuts"
And while I can't beat those, it's been a while since I shared some of my own, so here are a few recent searches that led people to my humble abode:
"world's most depressing songs"

"Doctor take off underwear"

"famous people afraid of water"

"axl stuffing"

"what is considered semi-alcoholic"
Have a great weekend, everybody...

A One-Post NFL Preview: Vick, Forgiveness, and Ewing

In another world, I might write a fairly lengthy, maybe even multipart preview of the NFL season, or write about my thoughts on the point spreads each week. But that would be a world in which I didn't care if any of my regular readers ever visited the blog again.

So instead, this one post about one NFL subject will suffice as my "preview." And that subject, unfortunately, is Michael Vick. I can't help it -- I don't think Vick deserves the time and attention, but I read two things about his situation over the past week, one that spurred a new thought and another that put a familiar name to something I had already been thinking.

First, Sports Illustrated ran a short piece that claimed Vick's redemption is not just possible but inevitable. This struck me as insane. I understood the premise of the argument -- that the only thing sports fans like more than judging is forgiving -- but I don't think it fully took into account the nature of the crime. It's true that star players get a pass for bad behavior all the time, and it's true that Vick is going to "pay his debt" with hard time, but still, his actions were a) premeditated, b) continuous, and c) taken against innocent victims.

His bad deed didn't fall into the categories most easily forgiven. It wasn't a moral transgression against another adult, like an affair; it wasn't a self-destructive act, like drug addiction; and it wasn't something that could be portrayed as a one-time lapse in judgment, like drunk driving. It's not the purest analogy, but what he did is more equivalent to prolonged child abuse, and I think even sports fans, so often willing to absolve the stars they cheer for -- to avoid cognitive dissonance, if nothing else -- will never feel comfortable aligning themselves with him again.

But that debate can only be settled in a year or two, at the soonest. For now, the Falcons take the field sans Vick, and while considering this Sunday's games, I had a hard time feeling like they were worse off. Then I read Bill Simmons' thoughts on the season, and remembered he had a name for this: The Ewing Theory.

In short, the theory states that teams often meet with better results after a high-profile player is traded, gets hurt, retires, etc. For a longer explanation, read this. What matters for now is how it applies to the Falcons, and I agree completely with Simmons, who writes:
Has the Ewing Theory ever fit someone more perfectly than Michael Vick? Look at the 2007 Falcons logically -- they self-destructed last season because of Vick (who struggled on and off the field) and Jim Mora Jr. (who ripped the heart out of his team by pining for another job midway through the season). Both of those guys are gone. Why is this a bad thing? I love their schedule (easy), their new coach (this year's Sean Payton, Bobby Petrino), their running game (the Jerious Norwood/Warrick Dunn attack), their rookies (they got three starters out of the top 41 picks) and the fact that everyone -- and I mean, EVERYONE -- is counting them out.
It's true that the Falcons could go 4-12 this year, but they could have conceivably done that with Vick. Like Simmons, I think they have a good chance to surprise people.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

AP Headline of the Day

No Trial Over Dog Registered to Vote

Five Songs, Chapter Twenty-Three

"Ready to Go" by Jennifer O'Connor

Off her record The Color and the Light, this is a two-minute song, gentle in sound but ambiguous in message (bitter? defeated? cautiously hopeful?), perfect for listening to four or five times in a row without a problem.

"Cigarettes, Wedding Bands" by Band of Horses

I've mentioned this band's new album a couple of times, but vaguely. Now that I've listened to it several times, it's clear that somebody better release something pretty damn great, pretty damn quickly if they want to challenge this for the year's best. Their debut last year was also terrific -- the new one keeps a lot of its strengths (consistency, songwriting, and the echo-y vocals), but does a slightly better job balancing ethereal numbers with harder rockers, like this one.

"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by The Beatles

How Help! doesn't make it on to lists of my favorite albums, I have no idea. It's enough to make me think the master list needs some updating. Perhaps in the coming weeks...

"Groove is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite

For the groove, yes. And for the heart, sure. But also for the way Bootsy Collins ends it with, "Y'all are crazy, man!"

"Halah" by Mazzy Star

I must have lost the album this appears on, She Hangs Brightly, a while back, but only noticed recently. So, today I downloaded this, the opening track and my favorite. It has the honor of being the 7,000th song in my iTunes.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Faces from the Past

My mom made a wonderful Labor Day dinner for me, and afterward we scrummaged through some old family pictures for the first time in a while. Always fun (if a bit chilling, vis-a-vis my haircuts, eyeglasses, T-shirt selections, etc.)

Some of the photos were quite old, from early in the last century. Here are a few to give you a sense. I post them because I think old shots like these are fascinating (poignant, creepy, and edifying all at once), and because no one in them is recognizable or still alive (we don't even know who some of them are):


Megan McArdle praises (and then buries) Paul Krugman: "He has gone from being the best popular economics writer of his generation to being a mediocre political writer. This is a tragedy for us, though I presume he likes things that way." ... Michael Blowhard considers the kudzu that is advertising. ... The best sitcom in years returns in four weeks, and the best thing ever made for television is one step closer to the finish line. ... The guys at Pajiba (including myself) fantasize about "supermovie" projects.

A Wednesday Song (and Laugh)

The hilarious Pet Shop Boys parody from the guys on "Flight of the Conchords". My buddy Eugene shows up about halfway through (he plays their landlord on the series), and the backup vocal at the :31 mark is the funniest/most accurate send-up I've seen/heard in a long time. Brilliant:

Samedi the Deafness

I have a book review in today's edition of the New York Sun:
"Samedi the Deafness" is not a title that rolls off the tongue, but then little in Jesse Ball's debut novel is built to be user-friendly. An ostensible mystery, it develops into a stubborn maze that aims to please fans of David Lynch rather than those of Raymond Chandler.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Places That Have Made Us

If you've been keeping a rough list of what's on my mind based on the contents of this site (and may the sweet lord help you if you have), you know that list includes: The benefits/anxieties of living in New York; the influence of family; the necessary conditions for maximizing personal creativity; and whether the AP has recently posted anything about drunken, illiterate lunatics getting mauled by zoo animals. Well, forget about that last one and you'll understand why I was so taken with a recent essay called "Medium Town" by Mark Oppenheimer. It's elegantly written, earnest in the good way, and I found myself nodding along with at least 80 percent of it.

In the piece, Oppenheimer, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and has written two books about religion, considers several aspects of place and ambition, including the notion that many aspiring writers share, which is that living in a big coastal city is "stimulating to the creative faculties, that somehow the street life of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or the Castro in San Francisco, energizes their prose and expands their imaginative capacities." Oppenheimer isn't convinced:
It's true that an extraordinary number of the hip American novels of the last twenty years have been set, at least in part, in New York. ... And nearly every popular young fiction writer one can name lives in New York: Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Jennifer Vanderbes, Gary Shteyngart, Dara Horn, Benjamin Kunkel, Edwidge Danticat. The New York afference is so prominent at this moment in time that Meghan Daum garnered an odd amount of publicity for moving to Nebraska — she wrote an essay about it, then a novel. You might have thought she'd bought a two-bedroom co-op on the moon. ... And while time will tell, it seems that the most lasting fiction writers working today live away from New York: David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro (if I may bring in a Canadian), Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, and of course Roth and Updike. None of them lives in a big city, unless you count Chabon, who lives just miles from San Francisco. Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo would seem to be exceptions, but it is interesting to note that Pynchon is from Long Island originally, and DeLillo was born in the Bronx and attended Fordham University. They are locals, not aspirants.
But even more than his take on location's importance (or lack thereof) in fueling artistic output, I was interested in Oppenheimer's thoughts on the broader psychology of being attracted to mega-cities:
I don't mean to suggest that there's anything necessarily wrong with living in New York, or that there aren't fine writers, and fine people, who live there. ... But I believe that for many people—not all—there is something neurotic about an attachment to the big city. After all, most of us do not come from the big city; we come from small towns, medium-sized towns, suburbs, exurbs, farms. Those are the places that made us. If we like who we are, like what we've become, then might there not (be) something disordered about turning our backs on our nativity? The flight from our regions and regionalisms is, in this way, not so different from the flight from our ethnicity, or our religion, or our family ties. It bespeaks an inner conflict, which is always a kind of sadness. ...

To me, living in a medium-sized town is, like going to synagogue or settling into domesticity with my wife, baby, and dog, a form of humility. It's what I want to do, but it also sends a message that I do intend: I don't have wisdom that's any better than the accumulated wisdom of generations before me. Raising children, paying a mortgage, raking leaves, knowing who my alderman is—these were the tasks that were set before my father and grandfather, and even if, by dint of more income or more education, I could be released from them, I don't think that that would make me a better person or open the door to a more satisfying life.
I say "read the whole thing" around here from time to time, and I always mean it, but this time I mean it a little more: Read the whole thing.

A Brief Foray Into the Tabloid Headlines

I hope it's obvious by now that this blog isn't preoccupied with celebrity news. If it was, I'm sure I'd have a lot more traffic. But I did want to take a minute to say that I hope Owen Wilson is doing ok after what appears to have been a recent suicide attempt. He grew up in Dallas, got kicked out of a private school where I later won a debate tournament, and I once briefly met him while he was shopping in the Borders I worked at after graduating from college. He's charming as hell on screen, and I think his writing ability helped make Bottle Rocket and Rushmore as good as they were (very, very good). His performance as Dignan in Bottle Rocket is one of my all-time favorites. So, I have about as much to say as most of us should about people we really don't know at all -- which is very little -- but I hope he's feeling better.

The Nines

As the summer movie season draws to a merciful close, my latest review goes up at Pajiba:
Versatility isn’t a crime, but the laughs, frights, and gimmicks in The Nines awkwardly tumble over each other, less like a symphony and more like a bunch of hyperactive kids who have gotten their mitts on the cookware.