Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Barbara, here I come

I've long been an admirer of Barbara Stanwyck -- despite the fact that I've only watched two of her films. But what films! I consider Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" to be one of the best movies I've ever seen, a comedy that transcends comedy -- and despite the great Henry Fonda around, it is Stanwyck's film all the way. ("I need him like the axe needs the turkey", "Lady Eve", played by Stanwyck, remarks at one point). The other film, of course, is the Billy Wilder noir "Double Indemnity", famous for getting into trouble for Stanwyck's expression: as her lover played by Fred MacMurray strangles her husband, Stanwyck's femme fatale, glimpsed in the rearview mirror, watches with an expression that is almost sexually ecstatic. (Oh, and I've seen her in a couple of weepies -- but I can't recall their names -- on TCM).

Still, it's Stanwyck's birth centenary this year and BAM is celebrating by screening several of her movies. (Perhaps because it is so well-known, "The Lady Eve" is not on the list). Of course I want to go but MoMA is screening a festival of Indian movies right this week -- so I was torn between what to do. Anthony Lane's profile of Stanwyck in the latest New Yorker settles it for me: I'm going to the Stanwyck retrospective for sure.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The strange ways of destiny

So the other day -- exactly a week ago, to be precise -- I went out with some friends who were visiting, to the Indian restaurant Yuva. Three of us ordered cocktails whose names were rather fun -- mine, I believe, was called Yuvapolitan. My friend's fiancee ordered one -- and here I forget its name again -- and this was basically jaljeera mixed with vodka. She let us taste it -- it was heavenly! I mean it. It tasted like the paani (of paani-puri) spiced with vodka. Aaaah.

Just today, [via Amardeep] I read about Somini Sengupta's latest for the Times: a piece on chaat, as found on the streets of Delhi. The piece is pretty good but what struck me was this paragraph:
A trendy restaurant chain called Punjabi by Nature offers an inventive cocktail built around the pani puri: Two potato-filled shells are served with a shot of vodka infused with green chili and lime, along with a glass of draft beer as chaser.
Awesome. Now that's what I call inventive food.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A kick in the balls

Jon Chait is probably the funniest political journalist writing today. If you want an example, read his column on Ari Fleischer's (the former Bush administration spokesman) WSJ column on the tax code. I'll only quote his kicker of an ending here (see the two photographs for illustration):

I'll give Fleischer the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this isn't an outright lie, but rather he couldn't read the table correctly. Let me explain it this way, Ari: Suppose that a few years ago, 37 percent of your scalp was covered with hair. Today, only 31 percent is. Would you say that your hair has increased or decreased over that time?

Have they seen the trailer?

So I learn from the New York Times that the movie Jindabyne is based on Raymond Carver's short story "So much water so close to home". This story, which was also filmed by Robert Altman in Short Cuts is about a man who goes on a fishing trip with his buddies, and keeps fishing even after discovering a girl's dead body -- and then reports it to the authorities. His wife, predictably, can't understand how he could have done that.

Have the film-makers seen the trailer for the movie? Well, I've seen it thrice (there's a bombardment going on at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas) and I mistook it for a thriller -- a kind of Wolf Creek really -- with peculiar Australian accents (just listen to Gabriel Bryne!) to boot. Which only goes to prove what I've thought all along: small independent features need to market themselves better and directors need to supervise the making of a trailer rather than leaving it to clueless associates who don't have much information about the movie.

Paragraph of the day

Geoffrey Nunberg begins his blog-post on apologies and their functions with this priceless paragraph:
When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, a bunch of my friends and I spent a lot of long afternoons and evenings at the movie theaters along West 42d Street, where for less than a buck you could see a double or triple feature of gangster movies, war movies or westerns. That was well before the area was sanitized and Disneyfied, and the theaters were--well, "seedy" doesn't really do them justice. The seats and carpeting were shabby and permanently saturated with a mixture of fluids, processed and unprocessed. The balconies were sharply raked, the rows so close together as to make even the economy section of a United Airlines flight seem positively spacious. And the clientele was a mix of movie buffs, lonely guys, and down-and-outers who considered 99 cents a stone bargain for a warm place to sleep off a bender. So it was that a friend and I found ourselves in the balcony of a theater one rainy evening watching an Anthony Mann western when we heard a middle-class male voice behind us saying in a loud, indignant tone: "Sorry? You piss on my date and you're SORRY?"
Just so we are clear: the post is actually on what apologies do -- or are supposed to do -- and the discussion covers both J. L. Austin and Erving Goffmann. Goffmann's take (from Nunberg's post):

The most enlightening discussion of this that I know of comes (not surprisingly) from Erving Goffman, in his books Interaction Ritual and particularly Relations in Public. (Goffman's account has since been built on by others, but his story will do for here.) Apologies, Goffman said, are remediation rituals that

represent a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with them, and by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold.

As a ritual, Goffman insists, the apology is independent of the substantive penalties that may be attached to an offense:

After an offense has occurred, the job of the offender is to show... that whatever happened before, he now has a right relationship--a pious attitude--to the rule in question, and this is a matter of indicating a relationship, not compensating a loss.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

This is an essay worth reading...

I haven't seen Michael Tomasky this angry since his debate with Peter Beinart in Slate (discussing Beinart's book "The Good Fight") and that was nothing compared to this profile of Rudy Giuliani that appears in the recent American Prospect.

Still, this is a strikingly good read. Tomasky's distaste for Giuliani is so palpable that as a result, the piece flows. Vividly. I haven't read a polemic this brilliant since Christopher Hitchens' rant against Michael Moore on the eve of the release of Fahrenheit 9/11 -- and that was nowhere near as smooth and effective as Tomasky's piece is.

Check it out.

The best line?

Bill Clinton may have embarrassed his family, but Rudy Giuliani humiliated his. That previous summer to which Donna referred, when she thought she and her husband were reconciling? He was dashing out to the Hamptons to spend weekends at Judy's condo! This was not mere irresponsibility, the kind of "mistake" we "learn from," as he has taken to saying on the stump. This was sadism. And he didn't act this way only toward his wife and kids, which might render this a private matter. No -- this was how the man dealt with enemies private and public.

Conservatives may think they're supporting the September 11 Rudy. But I covered the man for 15 years, and I can guarantee them they'll be getting the May 10 Rudy as part of the bargain. If they actually nominate him, they will eventually learn this the hard way, just like poor Donna did.

CORRECTION: In the Beinart-Tomasky dialog I linked to above, it's Beinart who seems angry, while Tomasky is merely icy. Still it was the fractious tone of the dialog I remembered.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Headline-construction is an art

As an example, check out this one from the NYT, about the financial services company (student loans) Sallie Mae, which is in talks for a merger:

Sallie Mae Said to Talk to Suitors

Thursday, April 12, 2007

After "After the Wedding" (Spoilers)

The interesting thing about failed movies (or even bad movies -- although bad movies aren't fun to watch) is that they tell you more about movies and about how movies work than successful ones do.

According to Heidegger, most of our experience as embodied human beings, embedded in various socio-cultural contexts is "ready-to hand": meaning that one acts in and through the world without really reflecting on it. An example would be me typing this blog-post on my keyboard: when I type, the keyboard doesn't really exist for me except as an extension of my hand, just as the pen doesn't really exist for me when I write long-hand. But if the keyboard was bad or if the one of the keys, the letter "e", say, stopped working (or the pen ran out of ink), I become aware of the keyboard as an object, with its own properties. What was before, for me, just an extension of my fingers, is now an object in its own right, something to be reflected on and fixed. A breakdown has occured and my keyboard has gone from being a ready-to-hand tool to being a present-at-hand object.

Susanne Bier's beautifully shot and acted After the Wedding has a similar effect. The movie doesn't work -- in fact, it falls flat -- but it brings out more about why movies work than anything I've seen. The film begins in Mumbai where we meet Jacob (pronounced Ya-ko-b), who works for a non-profit organization, caring for destitute children. Jacob is asked to come to Dennmark by a shadowy millionaire, Jorgen. Jacob has to meet Jorgen, talk and -- this is almost assured -- if everything goes right, he gets a nice tidy donation for his charity. Neat? Fishy? Yes, but not in the way you'd expect.

In Dennmark, Jorgen invites Jacob to his daughter's wedding; by this time Jacob's one day in Dennmark has already turned into three and Jorgen seems to be delaying. And at the wedding which gives the film its title, Jacob meets Jorgen's wife, who turns out to be the woman who left him twenty years ago. Is this a coincidence? Jorgen says so. The audience is suspicious. But then, Jorgen's twenty-year old daughter Anna lets slip out -- in her wedding toast, no less -- that she was actually fathered by another man, whom she doesn't know (Are Danes prone to casually revealing these things at weddings?) . No prizes for guessing what Jacob thinks.

A man has found a daughter he fathered after twenty years. What does he do? How does he react? At this point, I was ready for the film to turn into a not unpleasurable weepie or a Festen-style drama, with accusations flying back and forth. But After the Wedding is not that kind of movie. In the very next scene, Jacob confronts Jorgen's wife, his former lover: Either you tell our daughter about me or I will. And in the scene after that, she does exactly that. How will the daughter react? Will she bond with her father? Well, we find that out too -- in the very next scene. And so on it goes. After the Wedding, deals with in scenes, the themes and issues, that other, more weepy movies might devote their entire running times to.

So where's the movie going? It turns out -- again, none of this is revelatory -- that the rich, efficient, almost God-like tycoon, Jorgen, is dying and that this is indeed his way of playing God: making sure that his wife and his kids have something to keep, something to live for, somone who can take care of them, after he is dead. That they do and he dies. And that's the movie.

The last two lines would probably qualify as the understatements of the year. The revelations of Jorgen's death, his family's reaction to it, Jacob's decision to leave his orphanage and be with his family, a family that moreover has given him meaning in his life (not to mention, more funds for his orphanage) are all etched out in searching little scenes; scenes, it is true, that come out of a monstrously contrived plot but which seem -- I can't find any word for it -- authentic. The cinema verite style (what Manohla Dargis has called dogme-lite) and it's artful closeups -- a throbbing lip here, a tearful eye there, a hand lying limp, a face taut with pain, a forehead creased with worry -- manage to be both true and emotional, capturing the emotional pulse of a scene with unerring accuracy, and yet at the same time, seamless, never straining for effect. One scene in particular (out of many) stood out for me: a scene where Anna, the daughter, confronts her foster-father, Jorgen, when she learns of his impending death. No textual description could do justice to its poignancy -- and the brilliance of the actors.

And yet, I was dry-eyed throughout the movie. Not one tear. Not a drop. More importantly, I couldn't wait for the movie, with its over-the-top plot, to end. My impatience mounted as scene after emotional scene (all beautifully shot and acted) went past. When the movie ended, I heaved a sigh of relief. After the Wedding, as good as I could see it was, had been an excruciating experience to sit through.

Why? I'll tackle that in the next post (since this one has gone on long enough).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The things that turn people on ...

This gem, from a New York Times piece on sexual desire:
“Listening to Noam Chomsky,” said a psychologist in her 50s, “always turns me on.”

Sunday, April 08, 2007

I thought the British sailors looked cute! ...

...but what do I know?

Here is the New York Times, calling the suits shapeless and badly cut:
Yet, even as we allow that the British servicemen were innocent of fashion, and put on the clothes as a matter of course to replace the pajamas they had most recently been kept in, there is something disturbing about their appearance. It is doubtful that the Iranian government went to the trouble of outfitting 14 men in suits and shirts, however unflattering, if they didn’t mean to make some kind of a political statement. Having never been to that part of the Middle East, I am in no position to comment on a double-standard that permits people to wear one kind of fashion in their homes and another in public. But it seems to me that the plain if not poor cut of the suits was meant as a rebuke to flashy Western tastes. An English banker, in his bespoke suit, might react in horror, but couldn’t that be the point?
Hmmmm. I'm not sure what the argument is here, but is this a case of reading too much? To most eyes -- or at least to third-world eyes like mine -- the suits were elegant and the Iranian regime was just trying to show off, what Ahmadinejad might call his magnanimity. If the sharp sartorial Western eyes found them inelegant and frumpy, that was purely unintentional.

UPDATE: Re-reading the post in the light of the comment below, it strikes me that my prose isn't quite clear about what I am talking about. (Or in other words, I f***ed up). My point is: in dressing up the British sailors in suits, was the Iranian government's way of (elegantly) showing the middle finger to the West, the point being approximately, "look how we treat our prisioners, we even give them suits to wear; have you taken a good look at yours". At the same time, it was a way of gaining the good will of the rest of the Islamic world -- a kind of "look at us, we don't give a damn for the West".

If the suits seemed dowdy and badly cut, that wasn't a part of the plan, nor was it the intention. The suits were the point, not their cut or size. When I mentioned my third-world eyes I meant that they looked like perfectly adequate suits to me -- as I would assume, they would seem, to most people from the Islamic/developing world, at whom the gesture was aimed -- although I am perfectly prepared to accept that the suits were frumpy.

So maybe the Iranians miscalculated, after all?