Archive for May 2012

Portraits in Dramatic Time: Alan Rickman Drinks Tea VERY Dramatically

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"That guy could read from a phone book and make it interesting," you've never said about anyone. But if you did, you've probably said it about Alan Rickman, or as we all know him, Snape.

Well, actions speak louder than words, and watching him drink tea in the finest Shakespearean style beats any number of "I'll get you, Potter" + death stares.

Bear with it. It starts slow, but once you get to 1:22, the teabag hits the fan.

REVEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEENGE! finale, or, Introducing Demented Creativity to Batshit Cray-Cray

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In which Batmanda watches the whole world around her fall to pieces, yet again. For the third time in a decade, our precious Emily Thorne watches as everything she holds to be true proves itself false - the truth that her father's a horrible criminal, the truth that his death was simple, the truth that she's capable of avenging him. The truth that there's any kind of happiness at the end of this long and fantastical rainbow of revenge.

Each time, there's one person to help her find her way forward. A fairy godtrepreneur, if you will. And so she lurches from cause to cause, this time ready to admit the truth and settle with the one she loves, but forced onward nonetheless. Nolan professes to save her from herself, but ultimately, he gives her what she needs to keep her hatred burning, to maintain her tendency toward chaos.

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Without desire, there can only be chaos. This is why you can rarely find sense in the motivations of the Daleks, who don't want anything but to destroy the universe. Without Jack as her grounding principle, Batmanda would be nothing more than a Dalek, seeking destruction without end. Jack may not represent more than her ultimate desire, but without that positive want, Emily would have found chaos much sooner.

With Nolan and Jack, she forms a perfect trinity. The two men balance out her light and her dark; one could never suffice. Nolan gives her everything she needs to keep going, and Jack's existence restrains her worst impulses. Her father used to play both roles, and it makes sense that the chasm he's left in her life is so wide that it takes more than one to fill it.

This episode put a great capper on a fantastic season. While I loved the show from the start, I wasn't sure it had legs. Well done, writers. And if next season goes pear-shaped, we'll always have this year of perfection.

OTHER STUFF

-I am continually haunted by Victoria's engagement present of psychopathic loathing. The chutzpah's so off the charts that even Emily can't help but smile. This is why our Evil Queen can't be dead. No one else can ever replace her. Certainly not Charlotte. Who I hope stays dead.

-I've really enjoyed what the writers have done with Daniel this season. He tries and tries to be a good person, but at the end of the day, no one allows him to. I thought the only way to end his story was with death, but making him a villain works too.

-Finally, whoever gets to write the dialogue for Conrad and Victoria has the BEST FUCKING JOB EVER.

And just because it exists:

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Finally, go check out Hello, Tailor's review of the costumes: http://hellotailor.blogspot.com/2012/05/revenge-season-finale-reckoning.html

Art as Life: "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream"

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Over the next week, I plan to bring you 5 revolutions in city-planning form.

Going to MoMA's always a crapshoot. The permanent exhibitions remain unquestionably fantastic, but the special exhibitions certainly vary in quality (that said, if you haven't seen the Cindy Sherman exhibition, get thee to 57th street)

Despite planning a leisurely afternoon in the museum, my last visit was brief (failure-to-brunch may have contributed to its abbreviation). Accompanied by a friend who's as obsessed with architecture as myself, I was drawn into the vortex of a one-room mind-fuck called "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream".

Weeks later, the exhibition continues to haunt me; I bring it up in casual conversation without any context to describe it with. Blog post ahoy!

In a nutshell (AAAARGH IN A NUTSHELL!), MoMA invited 5 teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, landscapists and other urban professionals to create new ideas of home ownership and city design. They were assigned cities based on "The Buell Hypothesis," a re-assessment of the American Dream that argues that you "change the dream and you change the city" (you can read the full report here).

The Buell Hypothesis asked the design teams to imagine what a new American suburb might look like with different investment models and a changed responsibility for the "city."

Uniquely, this was not a contest. The five teams were invited to host open conversations with each other at MoMA, and the 5 designs, though wildly different, were actually the product of open collaboration. They have provided five new models of living, working, and commuting in a metropolis. Some of the ideas look like the product of a J.G. Ballard nightmare, but others are truly innovative.

Over the next few days, I will give you a loser look at each of the designs, their innovations, and what I perceive to be relative strengths and weaknesses. I hope that each piece becomes a thought-starter, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

Filling the Gaps: Serpico, or, Al Pacino Tries To Find A Fashionable Hat

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WHY I HADN'T SEEN IT

To be honest, I didn't even know about it ::fails::. For many reasons that are now obvious, it's not considered one of Sidney Lumet's great films, despite a fantastic performance by Al Pacino.

I found out about the film through The Savage City, T.J. English's fantastic account of police corruption and race riots in the 1960's and 70's. Frank Serpico's a minor character in the book, but his importance to changing the culture of the NYPD cannot be over-stated (in fact, the real-life impact of his actions are weirdly understated in the film).

THOUGHTS

The movie covers the 12ish years of Frank Serpico's life with the NYPD, from the clean shaven days to the full-blown hippie madness.

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Serpico's shown as a paragon of virtue in his professional life, though we're given little context as to where his ideals come from. Certain scenes clearly inspired the original Life on Mars series, but somehow the idealism of the protagonist makes more sense in that more fantastical scenario. What gives Serpico the strength to maintain his virtue even when his sanity's at stake?

The film's tight focus on Serpico's greatest moments of stress gives Pacino about 90 minutes of Oscar material. I can't help but think how the film would have benefited from a slightly broader scope. We play ample witness to corruption within the police departments, but we're not shown how scary the '70s really was in NYC. The problem isn't just that policemen were corrupt; the entire politics of the city created a patronage system where entire populations turned to crime as a substitute for their self-worth.

I fully recognize that some of my issues with the film may have to do with the datedness of certain details, but it also seems like a case where Lumet's commitment to "issue-raising" takes precedence over making a deeper study of the setting. Also, Tony Roberts. Can't take that guy seriously. Which is definitely the Woodster's fault.

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All that said, the film has many pleasures. Lumet gives New York so much attention that Woody Allen might be jealous. The West Village doesn't look like that anymore, and we can be sure that it never will again. Look at Dumbo, for godssake!

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And now, a tour of Al Pacino's ridiculous outfits (Frank Serpico, ever the egoist, claims that Pacino doesn't nearly do justice to his "forward-thinking fashions):

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A (Very Short) Poem of the Day: "A Short History" by Richard Wilbur

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In the spirit of the poem, I will keep this short. It's beautiful, it's simple, it's genius. I salute you, Richard Wilbur.

Wilbur made his name by translating our most beloved French satirists, Voltaire and Moliere. But poetry fell out of him wherever he went, including the battlefronts of World War II.

The best poetry manages to take the many contradictions and complications of the world and put it into order. This does it in spades.

"A Short History" by Richard Wilbur

"Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame."

"Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came."

Book Review: "Popco", or, "Teen Crytographer, Adult Space-Case"

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I don't tend to write about endings, at least not at length (not even Sense of an Endings. There's only so many words I can devote to hatred). Endings never satisfy me; denouements are a necessary evil to closing a relationship with a book/show/film that I've loved. It almost seems churlish to complain about an ending; everyone knows the hardest part for a writer is the saggy middle.

I'll make an exception for Popco. The ending, quite frankly, sucked. Scarlett Thomas's sudden wallow in cod freshmanphilosophy might have been less disappointing if the rest of the novel wasn't so damned perfect.

In Popco, Thomas takes disparate topics like advertising, advanced mathematics, cryptography, treasure-hunting, adolescent angst, toy-production and lust and somehow makes it work. The novel's funny, warm and incredibly inventive in its twists and turns. There's a children's adventure novel, a bildungsroman and a lost adult story all in one, and the swerves almost feel natural.

We follow Alice Butler from her creative agency retreat back to her childhood, spent helping her beloved grandparents decipher an encrypted treasure map (Thomas's tale of the fictional pirate took me straight back to the joys of my childhood). Her grandparents, like most of the characters that Alice sides with, are resolutely anti-authoritarian (her grandfather suffered great humiliation at the hands of one Alan Turing).

The anti-authoritarian streak of the novel is subtle and established, and we come to love Alice despite her eccentricities and social ineptitudes, cause goddamnit, she solves puzzles!

So the last 10% (thank you Kindle) of the novel throws out all the subtlety and elegance of what came before, substituting in leftist propaganda so juvenile that even early-90's Ethan Hawke would roll his eyes. There's an amorphous organization devoted to bringing down capitalism from the inside! They'll break down the walls of the corporatocracy with nothing more than plastic sporks! Marketing is evil!

What's even worse is how these platitudes are expressed. The emissary from the shadowy organization Ayn Rands all over the place, with a 20-page monologue about how righteous their cause is. A is A and B is B and this shit be cheesy.

You should still read it though. How many novels promise 90% perfection?

And look at that gorgeous cover:

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The Good Wife In Review: Season Finale

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Two weeks late (and not a penny short), we return to recap our favorite show (to say that I'm in withdrawal is more than an understatement, especially after this doozy of an episode).

But it's ok, because I get to remind you of the most epic Alicia/Kalinda HoYay non-subtext in the history of the show.

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"Flexible," Kalinda says, as Alicia restrains herself from jumping out of her chair with joy (I will take this opportunity to gloat at Hello, Tailor, who once accused me (mid season 2) of tinhatting in my firm belief that the secret story of this show is the relationship between Alicia and Kalinda). Parentheticals ahoy!

That's the last moment of happiness for our dearest Sexy Boots of Justice, as Alicia accidentally rips down the walls of her life with a single phone call. It's interesting that when Kalinda did the same to her last season, Alicia basically became this supermagnetic force, pushing away everything in opposition to her with almost lightning speed. Kalinda, on the other hand, attempts to reset to status quo by removing herself from the equation.

I've commented before that this show operates with an acute awareness of the laws of physics: energy cannot be created or destroyed; ions can't be shifted without having to rearrange everything surrounding it. By these laws, Kalinda can't just leave, not without creating a great imbalance in the show. Similarly, Cary couldn't come back until Will was pushed out.

But by the end of the episode, this fine dance of molecules doesn't matter anyway, as the entire Lockhart Gardner universe is faced with entropy. In the fine words of new-favorite-character Howard, "never, ever trust a man with a limp."

And in entropy, our only weapon is our freedom of choice. To quote a dearly beloved vampire, "when nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do." So when the chips are down, and Kalinda's at the end of her rope, she becomes decisive. And thusly we're left with my latest, greatest emo band name: Shotguns for Alicia.

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(credit for this marvelous gif goes to ramarika.tumblr.com)

OTHER

-A very embarrassed part of me really hopes that Alicia/Peter work it out. Or work something out. Or just hook up for an night of angry passion based on their shared conquest of Jackie.

-Also, this episode has one of the most perfect comic awkwardness scenes in history:

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Bertrand Russell: Ten Commandments for Teachers

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He says commandments for teachers, I say commandments for life. You should be so lucky with your own education (with rare exceptions, I was not).

Bertrand Russell's "A Liberal Decalogue" (1951)

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper argument than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Russell's rules are as effective as commandments for good thinking as for teaching, and it's incredibly how frequently they're violated. Which particularly touches your life? Share in the comments.

(h/t to Marginal Revolution)

Caine Prize 2012: "Bombay's Republic," by Rotimi Babatunde

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It's time for the Caine Prize! Once again, Aaron Bady, of the superlative blog Zungu Zungu, has organized an army of bloggers to cover the award. The Caine Prize sets out to publicize the works of otherwise-ignored writers from the African continent. (If you're interested in the mechanics, you should read this post, which covers the politics of the prize and recent rule changes.)

One of the joys of this collaborative reviewing experience is the way that each blogger brings their own back-story to the reading experience. It relieves some of the pressure to comment on every aspect of every story, a bore for both writers and readers. As a result, you can expect my reviews to run the gamut from poli-sci based analysis to more traditional literary analysis to explicit personal analysis.

"Bombay's Republic," by Rotimi Babatunde

"Bombay's Republic" is a story about stories. It's not a Borges-ian labyrinth, bringing to life the way that stories morph and wiggle and manifest in the strangest of places, but a picaresque, taking advantage of the way stories are used to bring light to the strangest places.

Just as Bombay encounters myths of himself abroad, he perpetuates myths about places even further abroad, such as Bombay and Calcutta.

The Black Hole of Calcutta becomes an especially effective metaphor. To an Indian-American who feels all the post-colonial angst of my parents and grandparents, the phrase itself has a racist subtext, even without the back-story. It's an effective illustration of the way that stories themselves become symbols.

In reality, of course, the Black Hole of Calcutta refers to a prison. By speaking of a prison that he doesn't even understand, Bombay effectively condemns himself to his own prison, a shining beacon on a hill (an idea with its own subtext), that traps him in his own delusions. When madness sets in and memory leaves, all we have left are stories, our myths, the thoughts that seep into our very consciousness.

Unfortunately for Bombay, he had the opportunity to create his own story, but went home instead and trapped himself in delusions: first the delusions of those who conquered his race, then his own delusions of grandeur.

In some ways, the ending lets down this beautiful construction, turning him not into Don Quixote, but into a strange fairytale character who doesn't quite deserve his happy ending.

While the story isn't perfect, it's great to see the Caine Prize engaging with different genres of fiction this year (granted, this is only the first story I've read, so there's still room for disappointment). Babatunde's story sets a bar for creative fiction that both engages with its own setting and focuses on being good fiction. There's no poverty porn here. I hope the other stories follow suit, and I look forward to the thoughts of my blogger colleagues (blogeagues?).

Join in the quivering chorus of our fellow participants:

Bookshy
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Zunguzungu

Method to the Madness

Betty Blue, or, "I'm not insane, I'm just batshit cray-cray"

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Betty Blue's leads are naked about 50% of the time. There's no getting around that fact. If you find something deeply offensive about the human body, then there's no point in watching the movie.

But I will say that the film features the most honest sort of nudity. There's a weird sort of prudishness that suggests there's no reason to be naked except to touch and to feel other human bodies. The nudity of lovers is never just about sex; it's about being comfortable enough with another person that you don't have to wear your armor around them constantly.

Even Roger Ebert somehow can't see past Betty's boobs, which is a shame, as there's so much more to the movie.

Zorg, our brilliantly-named protagonist and jack-of-all-trades, takes up with a young firebrand prone to irrational bouts of fury. I won't spoil them for you, but it's amazing how quickly we turn from supporting her little rebellions to recoiling in horror from them.

Betty Blue's also an extremely funny film. Zorg's a great little comedian in his messed up world, miming at life while Betty excels at it.

The brilliance of the movie doesn't come from Betty's little tantrums, though (as witty as they are). The most superficial reading suggests that Betty's crazy and that's that. Really, she's symbolically fighting the steady encroachment of domesticity and the struggle to find her voice in a world where Voice is greeted with horror (it's no coincidence that each bout of craziness is set off by a new rejection of Zorg's long abandoned novel).

Eventually, even she forgets about Zorg's novel. There's no great moment of clarity or acceptance; life just keeps getting in the way. There's something incredibly true about that. We're not all broken by the abandonment of our ambitions; we just change.

The places change, the faces change, even the music changes. And that's easier for some than for others.

Betty Blue suggests that with each change, maybe we leave a small part of ourselves behind, until we're broken into jigsaw pieces, left desperate to make ourselves whole again. It's a depressing thought. It's not a happy movie.

You should see it anyway.

Book Review: "Catherine the Great" by Robert K. Massie

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So let me tell you about Catherine the Great. She's every nerdy girl who survives by believing she's meant to rule the world. She has no voice, no power, but still reads every book that comes her way, forges relationships with her professors (in her case, Voltaire and Rousseau), and bides her time. Against all odds, she actually becomes queen.

She turns Russia into the first Enlightened European nation; what's merely philosophy in France becomes law in Russia. She establishes the first democratic body in the West, which is doubly astonishing for a woman with a firmly held belief in constitutional monarchy. She funded the arts out of a belief that art reflects humanity, not her own ego (though she had plenty of that, to be true). She knows she's hot stuff, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted lovers behind her.

I would tell you more, but you should read it yourself. Historian Robert K. Massie brings a world to life that barely even exists in our imagination; this is not the Russia of Tsars or communism, or even the Russia of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.

Somewhere towards the end of this complicated life, dearest Ekaterina takes a turn toward radical conservatism; a lifelong commitment to human rights and just leadership suddenly shifts into angry despotism, and only here does Massie's narration fail. He hints at the reasons for her transformation, but never gets to the root of it. We know its more complicated than the loss of Potemkin or the loss of Poland or even the loss of her entire family.

But until that point, which we come to in the last 30 pages or so, the book is pure perfection. Massie aims to set the story of this great woman straight, and admirably succeeds.

The First Color Photographs

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James Clerk Maxwell didn't invent the earliest color photograph, but he invented the first that didn't fade into black and white when exposed to light.

Until James Clerk Maxwell developed the three-color method (which we've all absorbed since our earliest school days - all colors are based on combinations of red, green and blue light), color photographs were barely more permanent than memory, automatically reverting to Instagrammatic nostalgia.

Even Maxwell's timeless Tartan feels more like a Monet than a Man Ray, with shades leaping across the page like a quickly descending fog.

Or perhaps it's just a photo, after all. The past never quite seems photo-realistic, and perhaps it's unfair of us to try and make it so.

This is 1861. It seems strange that none are alive to challenge this basic fact.

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