Friday, September 29, 2006

water, water

I've been in the US for so long now -- four years -- that I almost forget what it's like back home: problems with the sewage, the water supply, the food. To remind anyone else who's also forgotten, here is Somini Sengupta's exceptionally well-written piece in the Times today.

UPDATE: Second and third parts of the series here and here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

oh, so many movies

The New York Film Festival opens tomorrow, with a screening of Stephen Frears The Queen, starring the great Helen Mirren. It continues till the 15th of October. Among the many other films are Todd Field's Little Children, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and Pedro Alomodvar's Volver. The complete list of films and schedule is here.

I feel like going every day and watching a movie but I have some issues:

a) I'm worried about spending too much. Student discount tickets cost $10, which is the standard price for watching a movie in the city. But student discounts aren't guaranteed, they depend on availability of tickets.

b) Some of the movies will definitely be released theatrically, especially the ones I mentioned above. Should I try for the more "commercial" ones which will get released commercially anyway? Or should I try for the experimental/foreign films which I may not get a chance to see again (although they could turn out to be awful, but then again, that's the whole point of going to a film festival -- you go through duds to experience revelation)?

To top everything, today's New York Times has not one, not two but three raves. For The Queen, for Little Children and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. So many movies!

Existential dilemma of my day: To go for the opening night tomorrow or not?

Aside: Of course, I heartily dislike most of Manohla Dargis' reviews. Even when she praises the film, as she does here, the sneering tone and the all-round condescension just don't go well with me. (Dargis can write lovely pieces of criticism: see her review of Old Joy here and my favorite, her review of Far from Heaven for the Los Angeles Times here).

how to do a hatchet-job...

...on your ex-boyfriend.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

wrapping up my day.

Today was a good day, work-wise.

So here I am wrapping it up.

First some links:

The Tanner lectures are freely available online! [via Crooked Timber]. Awesome! Here's Thomas Nagel, John Rawls Kwame Anthony-Appiah and Michael Walzer. Plus many more.

Extracts from Pervez Musharraf's new book. Doesn't the man know that political figures are supposed to write memoirs when they're at least twenty years out of office?

Also a great piece on copyright. It's a great primer, and more. And a piece on income inequality that I really liked. [via Ross Douthat]

Now some movies:

I saw "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" yesterday, and while the frank attitude towards pre-teen sexuality is quite unsettling -- essentially this is a coming-of-age movie about an effeminate boy who is infatuated with an older, handsome police officer -- I found the movie way too mawkish. The portrayal of a Filippino slum, where the movie takes place, is remarkably authentic. I am not so sure about the dialogue although I really cann't say much since the film was subtitled. But this -- the authenticity of the spoken language in foreign-language films -- is something that has intrigued me since I saw Syriana, where the Urdu/Hindi melange that its Pakistani characters spoke in, was completely unrealistic -- in fact the subtitles sounded way better than what those guys said (and the way they said it).

Ps: For those of you who haven't watched Syriana -- left-wing agitprop but nevertheless interesting -- but plan to, stay till the end of this infuriating movie: the dramatic ending almost makes up for the (purposefully) sloppy story-telling.

And it's probably best to avoid "Eating Out" (as also, I guess, the coming sequel.)

Monday, September 25, 2006

God! what next?

This is the silliest article I've read in a while but it's also pretty funny.

The Case of Cory Maye

This is fascinating.

the pope's remarks

I was planning to write a post about why I thought the Times' demand that the Pope apologize for his remarks was misguided but instead I'll just recommend this Jacob T. Levy post at Open University.

bias in political science journals

Check out this Kevin Drum post and another commentary by Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber on publication bias in PolSci journals.

The original paper is here.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Science of Sleep

Go, go, go, see the Science of Sleep. It's both funny and sad, and very very quirky.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

chavez and chomsky

Apparently Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant President of Venezuela, held up Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance" and recommended that everyone read it. He also called President Bush the "devil". And then:

As an aside to the General Assembly address in which Chavez pronounced the U.N. "worthless" and referred to President Bush as "the devil," the Venezuelan president mentioned his regret at never having met Chomsky before he died.

Hmmm. Chavez is a prolific reader but has he really read Chomsky? Still the Los Angeles Times clears up the matter anyway:

An icon of the American left, Chomsky is, in fact, alive and well and living in Lexington, Mass. "I continue to work and write," Chomsky told the New York Times
on Thursday.

He he.

Friday, September 22, 2006


I found this really amusing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Governor McGreevey confesses.

Two years ago, you remember, James McGreevey resigned as the governor of New Jersey because of his affair with an Israeli citizen, Golan Cipel. The Governor's decision was less over his affair and the fact that Cipel had threatened to sue for sexual harassment than about the fact that he had appointed Cipel to a post he was not qualified for. So McGreevey came out in front of the cameras and it was a pretty interesting moment. The Governor, of course, made his resignation about his homosexuality but, as the New York Times was quick to point out, it was more about his abuse of public power.

I remember remarking to a friend at a party sometime after his resignation that the Governor seemed to be a man who liked having his cake and eating it too. At that point another acquaintance interjected that this was natural for a man his age -- McGreevey is in his forties -- and that his predicament merited more sympathy, especially from twenty-something types like me, who had much to be thankful for. I had to admit that was true.

Well, anyway, now McGreevey is publishing his memoir -- confessional, rather. An excerpt has been published in the latest New York magazine and while I'm not about to run out and buy his book -- it's called The Confession; sutble, huh? -- it's on the whole not bad, it probably even has some grains of truth in it. The New York excerpt pretty much tells the whole story, what else is he going to talk about in his book?

Back to the excerpt though. Some parts, of course, are cringe-worthy: I mean who talks like this?
“Gole,” I said. “You’ve got to learn to be part of the team.”

“My only team is you,” he said.

Gole indeed!

Here's his (over-dramatized) account of his first meeting with Cipel:

One afternoon, we took a bus trip to a local arts center in Rishon Lezion, a rather featureless city just outside Tel Aviv. We were greeted there by the mayor, but it was his 32-year-old communications director, a former Israeli naval officer, who caught my eye. That’s too casual a way to put it. My attraction to him was immediate and intense, and apparently reciprocated. Our eyes met over and over before we were introduced. “This is Golan Cipel,” said the mayor. “He is familiar with New Jersey—for a number of years he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Manhattan.”

We shook hands for a long time. “I followed your campaign very closely,” Golan said. “Twenty-seven thousand votes is a very narrow margin.” He went on to describe my strengths among various constituencies. I was startled by his knowledge of my campaign.

At lunch I made sure to sit next to him. “Democrats take Jews for granted. It’s a powerful constituency. You have to develop relationships with them,” he said. “You got a good percentage of the overall Jewish vote. But if you’d gotten even a small number of Orthodox votes, and all of the Reform Jews, you would be governor today.”

He had smart ideas about my campaign, but I was only half-listening. Watching this handsome man talk—and show an interest in my political standing—totally mesmerized me. Nobody commits to memory the demographic standings of a politician halfway around the world as an academic exercise. I was flattered beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.

I assumed he was straight, but what was happening at this lunch if not flirting? I flirted back, a bit shamelessly. I can’t say I ever had a more electrifying first meeting—so dangerously carried out in a room full of politicians who could ruin us both.

I don't know about you but it sure rings true to me.

The other well-written part of the extract is, of course, the Big Fall, when things start to go wrong. I'm not sure if McGreevey is a genuinely tragic figure, or even deserves to be, but there are some tragic elements, nevertheless. An ambitious man, with his own secrets, a passion that turns out to be a mistake and then of course, the Fall -- oh yes, that's a tragedy all right.

Finally, even if everything else is a piece of balderdash, this has got to be true:
My father’s first response was, “You make a choice, Jim—Coke or Pepsi. You were married twice, you have two wonderful daughters. Why don’t you try to make that work? Why don’t you make the regular choice?”

“Dad, I’ve known my whole life. This is who I am.”

“You will always be my son,” he said, shaking my hand stiffly.

My mother, whose love for me has proved tremendously resilient, mostly kept her thoughts to herself. But when we parted, she took me into her arms and gave me a long and tender hug. “We will always love you, no matter what you do,” she said.

I could have done without the descriptions of his love-making with Cipel, it seems straight out of a not-too-good novel. And I'm inclined to completely distrust his posturings about campaign finance, the man protests far too much. He is also wrong to make his resignation into a triumph. For him, maybe but isn't he forgetting that he was a public servant?

And speaking of public servants, I'm intensely curious about the young and handsome Mr Golan Cipel, who to this day denies that there was an affair at all. Here's his story -- I'm more inclined to believe McGreevey's though, maybe it isn't true but it's far more interesting.
Michel Gondry's latest is releasing on Friday. Lynn Hirschberg profiled him in last Sunday's Times Magazine. I was surprised to know that it was Gondry who came up with the idea of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- to my mind, the best movie of the last few years -- and pitched it to Charlie Kauffmann. He must have been galled when everyone treated the movie as a Charlie Kauffmann creation.

Update: David Edelstein says the same thing here. And he gives the movie a thumbs up. Must see it this week.

On an aside, did anyone read the Hirschberg's essay two weeks ago on Vera Farmiga? Now Farmiga may be as talented as Hirschberg says she is -- I haven't seen her movies but I'd like to now, after reading the piece, just to decide how good she is -- but really, comparing her to Meryl Streep -- who I saw last month as Brecht's Mother Courage, "burning energy like a supernova", as Ben Brantley put it in his review -- is a bit much, no? Streep has been acting for decades, Farmiga for barely a decade. And if Farmiga seems to be losing parts -- mainstream parts -- to the likes of Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett (who strikes me as a good candidate for being the next Meryl Streep), then surely, she can't be that good, can she?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Apparently it takes a Pope to get Christopher Hitchens into rollicking form again. Hitchens is a rivetting polemicist: at his best, he mixes his no-holds-barred style, with humor and self-irony, all in just the right amounts. I even took his book from the library, Letters to a Young Contrarian, but couldn't read more than a few pages because I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about; my fault, not his. His book on Mother Teresa, however, I read with relish, all the way from its wink-wink title -- The Missionary Position -- to its last page. Lately though Hitchens seems to have stopped being provocative and merely become tiresome. I've no quarrel over Hitchens' support for the Iraq war but I do have a quarrel over how boring his latest essays have become. Here he is reiterating his stand against Joseph Wilson (and here too, and probably in a hundred other places, here on Juan Cole and here on George Galloway -- yesh, I wish he wouldn't bring his quarrels into the pages of Slate). Last week he made this startling assertion in a review of a biography of I. F. Stone (3quarksdaily, which simply quotes a small extract from essays, was startled enough to quote his "remarkable claim"):
MacPherson [the writer of the biography] makes the slightly glib assumption—as do the editors of the excellent companion volume, The Best of I. F. Stone—that, if he were around today, Izzy would be as staunchly anti-war and anti-Bush as she is. Having known him a bit, I am not so absolutely sure. That he would have found the president excruciating is a certainty. But he had a real horror of sadistic dictators, and would not have confused Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein with the Vietcong...Finally, I think he would have waited for some more documents to surface, and helped unearth them himself, before making any conclusive judgments about weapons programs or terror connections in Iraq.
I wonder how much more one needs to wait before making conclusive judgements.

I wonder also how long I'll have to wait before another enjoyable Hitchens essay comes along.

ps: The last Hitchens essay I really really enjoyed was his furious rant against Michael Moore, on the eve of the theatrical release of Fahrenheit 911. Here it is again, just in case anyone wants to read it -- it's good, I promise.

pps: That said, I wish Ratzinger had simply stuck to his guns and refused to apologize. As a Catholic, he's entitled to his opinion of Islam and the Prophet -- and he's entitled to express it as well. Since when did we require believers to say that all faiths are the same and that theirs is not the one true faith? And the Pope's a believer, isn't he? Speaking of the Pope, here's Hitchens funniest line in his essay:
It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I recommend reading the cover-story of the latest New York Times magazine, on Guantanamo Bay by Tim Golden, for the reason I generally recommend things: it's very well-written. That said, the essay is very coy on what really happens at Guantanamo: who does the interrogation, for example. Clearly it isn't Col. Mike Bumgarner, the star of the piece. His mandate, as he recounts, was to administer Guantanamo, and bring it, as far as possible, under the Geneva Conventions. But what is missing from the account is how. Bumgarner doesn't seem to have been in charge of interrogations, which presumably were handled by the CIA, but only with the day-to-day administration of the prison. The inmates demanded -- and got -- from him better food, water, more Korans and more prayer-time. At no point does he seem to have been involved in the actual interrogations. Only later did the issue of trials and habeus corpus -- the most important issues at the heart of Guantanamo -- come up.

I remain unimpressed by some of the demands: the demands for more Korans and more prayer-time, and -- astoundingly -- less disturbance during prayer time almost seem like luxuries. I am wondering: do civil prisioners in the US get this right? And yet, I believe these demands did lead to the ones the detainees -- all of us, actually -- care about the most: the right to a trial and the right not to be imprisioned without reason on someone's whim.

Still some of the quotes in the essay astonished me. This one, for instance.
“If people’s basic human rights were respected, I don’t think they would have had any of these problems,” said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. “There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do.”
A Taliban cabinet minister talking about basic human rights. It's a bit rich, no? Oh well, better late than never.

Readers might want to read the Times magazine piece along with this New York Review of Books piece. Here's something from the piece, admittedly trivial, that I was curious about:

Enemy Combatant has been praised in Britain for Begg's outstanding liberality of mind and evenhandedness toward his captors, some of whom are described as unfeeling brutes, others as decent human beings who become his "friends." Unfortunately, these relationships are rendered in long passages of direct speech, and Begg and/or his coauthor are notably talentless at writing dialogue. So one has to plow through exchanges like this one, with a Republican-voting soldier from Alabama named Jennifer:
Once, she confided, "When we were briefed about this place we weren't relishing the idea of spending a long time here. Gitmo was home to the 'worst of the worst,' they said. Then a handful of us were chosen for this mission in Echo, maximum-security isolation block, where the most dangerous terrorists in the whole island were kept. I was expecting a Hannibal Lecter/Agent Starling type situation, with you guys trying to terrify us using perverse mind games...."

"So how does it feel, discussing Les Misérables with one of the most dangerous men on earth?"

"I can see now how we all bought the hype. I don't know if they've even accused you of anything, but I know y'all can't be guilty. The government would have displayed their strongest evidence in a sensational show trial by now... I expected you to hate all Americans after all you've been through, especially us soldiers. But you're wonderfully complex, Moazzam. All the things I'd expect you to be, you're not."

Perhaps Begg really did strike up a warm relationship with soldier Jennifer, but all one can say of the words on the page is that they are resoundingly phony. Only in bad fiction do people speak this way, and true though Begg's story may well be in its essential facts, it is very poorly served by line after line of rankly implausible writing.

What do you think, guys? Do the words sound phony to you too? They do to me -- although my point would be that they sound like fiction, but not necessarily bad fiction. No?

Also in the Review, a lucid Timothy Garton-Ash piece, on Europe, that I find myself whole-heartedly agreeing with.

Finally, Michiko Kakutani is not one of my favorite critics, but for a classic example of how not to write a book-review, see here -- this is a hysterical piece of writing, filled with outrage but very little analysis. To compare, click here and here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

more movies

Some movies I saw this week:

Le Petit Lieutenant: Almost unbearably poignant.

Half Nelson: Pretentiously Marxist in its outlook but Ryan Gosling proves he's the real thing: an authentic movie star.


Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oriana Fallaci

This line, from a New York Times obituary for Oriana Fallaci, made me laugh:

“How do you swim in a chador?” she asked Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, not long after he came to power in Iran. His reply, she wrote in The New York Times, was that she was not obliged to wear one, because it was a garment for proper Islamic women. She tore off her chador, and Ayatollah Khomeini stalked off.

Also, the New York Times reports on California's efforts to reduce energy consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

new resolutions

Blogging hasn't been that good in the past few months. And I don't know why. There are tons of things I read or think everyday that I think will make a good blog-post and somehow I don't end up writing them at all or I just leave them unfinished, in fragments. So here's a decision I made. Beginning today, I will write "capsule reviews" -- small paragraphs on anything notable that I've watched, or viewed, or seen, or read. So without any further ado, here goes:

The Illusionist is the best movie I've seen this year -- the moviest, the most vivid, a movie about magic and illusions that is so magical that it reminds one how magical movies really are (or can be). Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser -- someone I intend to read soon -- it's finally about a little boy and a girl, who've been separated since childhood because, well, she's rich and he's not. The boy leaves, and returns as a famed illusionist, Eisenheim, a magician like no one Vienna has seen before and they reunite even though the girl is engaged to a cad, a rich cad. What happens then is fairly straightforward, a struggle between two lovers and the world around them, a struggle which the two lovers either win or lose, see the movie to decide for yourself. There is a moment late into the film -- stop reading now if you want to see it -- when something happens, when Eisenheim, who seems to be producing wraith-like figures, probably from beyond life, becomes a wraith himself and dissapears that is magical, probably one of the most transcendent moments on cinema. I gasped when it happened, though I'm saturated with movies. You will too.

If The Illusionist is the best movie of this year, then Hollywoodland could qualify for one of the worst, except that it is too boring to qualify for anything. The movie is based on the life of George Reeves, a man who played bit-roles in movies (in Gone with the Wind and From Here to Eternity, no less) and who became famous for playing Superman on TV in the fifties, and who later committed suicide although the movie flirts -- badly -- with the idea that he was murdered. Ben Affleck's performance is sympathetic and made me wonder whether he was drawing on his inner sense that "There for the grace of Matt Damon...". Diane Lane, who in Unfaithful, as David Edelstein memorably wrote, allowed us to gaze at the soul of her character through her eyes, gives her most stylistic performance, as a rich older woman who's infatuated with Reeves. Unfortunately Affleck and Lane and Bob Hoskins, who plays Lane's husband, are barely on scree, most of the movie involves a most boring subplot about a detective (played by Adrien Brody) trying to reconcile with his son and solving the Reeves case. Avoid Hollywoodland, just get some sleep instead.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


A nice-sounding (??is there a better word??) sentence from Tony Judt's review of Leszek Kolakowski's massive three-volume history Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, the Golden Age, the Breakdown:
The attraction of Marxism thus understood is obvious. It offered an explanation of how the world works—the economic analysis of capitalism and of social class relations. It proposed a way in which the world ought to work—an ethics of human
relations as suggested in Marx's youthful, idealistic speculations (and in György Lukács's interpretation of him, with which Kolakowski, for all his disdain for Lukács's own compromised career, largely concurs[6] ). And it announced incontrovertible grounds for believing that things will work that way in the future, thanks to a set of assertions about historical necessity derived by Marx's Russian disciples from his (and Engels's) own writings. This combination of economic description, moral prescription, and political prediction proved intensely seductive—and serviceable.