Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Bright Star

I'm sometimes a sucker for period pieces, particularly ones with a literary bent. In this regard, Bright Star, which focuses on the poet John Keats but is really about Fanny Brawne does not disappoint. The use of the language of Keats's poems works well. The film imparts the tightly circumscribed world of most people during that time and place as well as the intense, rather adolescent, nature of love at the time. The movie is exactly what you think it is. I enjoyed it.

Review: The Hurt Locker

In many ways The Hurt Locker is a simple film that works very well. Simple because it focuses on an extremely circumscribed stage: the experiences of a single group of people. There is no encompassing larger theme. Just one man and his relationship with war. No political message, other then, perhaps, the meek hopelessness of war, is imparted. As a movie it is tight and suspenseful. There is no real political message here. Perhaps that is as it should be. But, one can't help but wonder why are we there and what are we trying to do?

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker November 23

Selected thoughts on the 23 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

This is the food issue.

Lunch With M. (by John Colapinto)
Colapinto interviews an inspector from the Michelin restaurant review in New York. Interesting tidbits about their training, the Michelin philosophy, and the impact of rankings on the restaurant scene are revealed. There is definitly an element of food porn to this article. If there is ever a place for that, though, I suppose it would be the yearly New Yorker food issue. So, there you go. Still, an enjoyable article to read.

The Taste Makers (by Raffi Khatchadourian)
This was an extremely interesting article. It is all about "natural flavors", what exactly that means, and how flavorists hunt up and create new flavors in the lab and by sampling nature. The article is largely centered on Michelle Hagen, a flavorist for the Givaudan company in Cincinnati. It follows her in her lab as well as on taste searching trips. This long article is wonderful and full of too much information to easily summarize. You won't regret reading it.

What's the Recipe (by Adam Gopnik)
The setup to this essay by Gopnik is ripped right from a New Yorker cartoon caption: a man and a women reading in bed. She's reading a fashion magazine and he's reading a cookbook. Why are they reading this things? Indeed, in this age-of-Google, what is a cookbook for? Gopnik lays out some potential reasons, but the point that sticks with me his is phrasing about the cycle of desire and disillusion:
The desire to go on desiring, the wanting to want, is what makes you turn the pages—all the while aware that the next Boston cream pie, the sweet-salty-fatty-starchy thing you will turn out tomorrow, will be neither more nor less unsatisfying than last night’s was. When you start to cook, as when you begin to live, you think that the point is to improve the technique until you end up with something perfect, and that the reason you haven’t been able to break the cycle of desire and disillusion is that you haven’t yet mastered the rules. Then you grow up, and you learn that that’s the game.
Unheavenly Host (by Nancy Franklin)
A review of television (and radio) personality Glenn Beck. Real or imagined, it really is some sort of performance.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker November 16

Selected thoughts on the 16 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

November 9th (by George Packer)
The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War sort of snuck up on me. Hard to believe it's been 29 years. Packer's piece reminds us just how amazing the turn of events was--especially in contrast with other would-be revolutions since then that haven't work out nearly as peacefully or successfully.

Slow Fade (by Arthur Krystal)
Krystal recounts the years famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald spent trying to make a living as a Hollywood screenwriter. Piece is notable for its depiction of the factory-like nature of the screenwriting process. Fitzgerald never really fit in well as a cog in that machine.

Nightmare Scenario (by Margaret Talbot)
This is a fascinating article that focuses on nightmares--particularly on emerging psychotherapeutic techniques for treating (managing?) them. The article largely focuses on Barry Krakow (who apparently has a blog)of the Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences, a clinic in New Mexico. Talbot interviews several other researchers, with a focus on a technique known as imagery-rehearsal therapy. It is pretty much what it sounds like, a sort of cognitive-behavioral take on dreams. There are all kinds of interesting things in this article, unfortunately I'm not sure how much weight to put into them since I'm newly wary of the Igon Value effect. That's a topic I'll have to come to terms with at some point. For example, there is an interesting claim that self-reported dreaming in color vs black and white has a strong correlation with television technology, and that dreams are now experienced as short, YouTube ready snippets rather than the sprawling narratives of Freud's era.

The Pharaoh (by Ian Parker)
This is an absolutely fascinating article. Parker presents a profile of the well-known Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass. Hawass is the head of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities and an omni-present expert on television documentaries. The article discusses the interesting role of ancient artifacts in modern Egypt as well as the politics of the small community of Ancient Egyptian scholars. Hawass's own academic findings and work habits are also explained. It was very enjoyable to learn more about Hawass, as well as the inside information on the connection between infotainment and scholarship when it comes to ancient Egypt. This piece is a must read if you are at all interested in ancient Egypt.

Hosed (by Elizabeth Kolbert)
Kolbert's review Superfreakonomics is an apt coup de grĂ¢ce to the whole issue of "experts" (square quotes intended) and contrariness. Kolbert attacks the problem head on:
But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier.
Lift and Separate (by Ariel Levy)
I've been thinking about Feminism lately. This is partly spurred by Jessica Valenti's wedding and partly by Sarah Palin. So, I was happy to come across the review of the Feminism movement by Levy. In this piece, motivated by a new book about American Women from 1960 to the present by Gail Collins, Levy argues for a collective bout of amnesia coupled with false memories when it comes to the history and accomplishments of feminism.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: The Age of Innocence

Following on from The House of Mirth, I recently finished Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Published in 1920, this novel focuses on the morals of 1870s-era New York Society. The title is intended to be ironic, as the protagonist, Newland Archer, definitely has some inclinations that Society would not approve of. The point, however, is that in the end Archer chooses to repress his true feelings.

Archer, a young lawyer from a fashionable family, faces a problem that is not unique to his time or place. Should he marry the woman he is engaged to--the beautiful but dull and passive May, or the exciting, foreign-influenced, and curious (and already married but nearly divorced) Ellen? What a choice. Clearly, in the end Archer does the Right Thing and carries on through life and marriage as he is dutifully expected to. This is made all the more apparent by the final chapter which revisits Archer and his engaged son 25 years later. His son lives essentially in the times depicted in The House of Mirth, a detail that adds a fascinating backdrop for Wharton's depiction of the way things were.

I quite enjoyed my 2009 perspective on Wharton's 1920 perspective on what things were like in the 1870s. There isn't anything deep or nuanced in the story, but the commentary on society and shifting morals and marriage is still fertile territory.

The obvious questions is, all things considered, did Archer pick the right woman? But, really, he never actually had a choice. And, more importantly, no body was nearly as independent, educated, or--dare I say it--modern as the characters in The House of Mirth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: PNB Director's Choice

Well, I guess even geniuses put together a dud at times. I did not enjoy Pacific Northwest Ballet's recent Directors Choice performances. I was irritated at times, however, so perhaps Peter Boal is doing something right.

Some brief comments:

Parts of Petite Mort were very good. And what is there to not like about dancing with swords? But, the dancers were noticeably out of sync at points--a big problem in a piece with such slow segments. It had less of an emotional punch than I expected. Mopey, featuring James Moore, was just very odd. Perhaps I wasn't angry enough to get it? The Seasons (a world premiere of a piece by Val Caniparoli) was much more traditional. Parts of it were engaging, but I would have preferred more of a plot or emotional trajectory connecting the different parts. West Side Story Suite (which I have seen before at PNB) is just a travesty. What's the point? Just go see a production of the musical--it already has such iconic choreography.

Perhaps my disappointment in this production indicates that I have now seen enough ballet to know what I like and to be unafraid of having a negative opinion. Still, I'm looking forward to my next chance to see a ballet.

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker October 26, November 2, and November 9

I got distracted by life (turns out to be a good way to waste a week). Here is a 3-in-1 update of very selected thoughts.

Selected thoughts on the 26 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Predator War (by Jane Mayer)
The use of remote-controlled aircraft to kill people has become common place, as Mayer's piece makes clear. How is this different from targeted assassinations? And what does it mean for the connection between us and the real costs of war? It's no Skynet, but this piece raises some very important questions.

The Inferno (by Christine Kenneally)
Typically, in Australia people are told to stay and ride-out a forest fire, while in the US people are urged to flee. Is that changing? Kenneally reports on a tragic fire in Australia and how the results of tthe different approaches may effect future government advice.

Man of Extremes (by Dana Goodyear)
One can't help but to compare Goodyear's profile of director James Cameron with David Foster Wallace's profile of David Lynch. The two pieces are very different in focus and style, but both are very rewarding reads. In addition to discussion of the Cameron's soon-to-be-released film, Avatar (perhaps the most expensive movie every made), this piece revisits Cameron's past work and explores his motivation. This is very interesting article.

Selected thoughts on the 2 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Why Banks Stay Big (by James Surowiecki)
Yet another cogent discussions of financial system. Surowiecki makes an interesting point: it is a huge pain to switch banks, meaning that most people end up being "locked in" to some specific choice.

I Don't Get It
This is the cartoon issue of the New Yorker. Per usual, some obscure cartoon references are explained. It's fun to try to differentiate the fake and the real explanations.

Selected thoughts on the 9 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Talk This Way (Alec Wilkinson)
This piece is a fascinating profile of Hollywood dialect coach Tim Monich. He is an academic descendant of Henry Sweet--the model for Henry Higgins. The written examples illustrate the sounds of the different dialects surprisingly well. It is clear why Monich is the master of this area.

Captives (by Lawrence Wright)
Wright reports on what happened during the most recent Israeli incursions in Gaza. More importantly, he provides a larger context of the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was shocked by the contrast between the present situation in the Palestinian territories with the state of affairs in the early 1990s. It is hard to be somewhat depressed by this piece. A lot is written and claimed about this conflict, and there are claims and counterclaims and points of moral equivalency that I cannot even begin to judge. I will not try to summarize this article. I recommend reading it and thinking hard about the world we live in.

Possessed (by Thomas Mallon)
Mallon uses the recent publication of two biographies about Ayn Rand to discuss her as an author and philosopher. One might think that Rand would be going out of style because of the economic meltdown--after all, Alan Greenspan was a disciple of Rand. However, it seems that the opposite has occurred, with her philosophy getting a rebirth. This, of course, has happened before--usually whenever the Democratic Party gains even a little bit of political power. Most people realize the problems with Rand's philosophy by the end of their teenage years (I think I was done with it shortly after 1998), but it is useful to keep in mind what this is all about. Mallon offers a depiction of the modern Objectivism movement (such as it is), coupled with a scathing critique of Rand-as-author.

Flesh of Your Flesh (by Elizabeth Kolbert)
Kolbert takes on the topic of vegetarianism in this review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. This strikes me an honest and clear treatment of the issue. After describing various arguments for and against eating animals (and they way they are treated), Kolbert offers this summary:
Foer’s position is that all such arguments are, finally, bogus. We eat meat because we like to, and we devise justifications afterward. “Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.” What we know about eating animals is that we don’t want to know. Although he never explicitly equates “concentrated animal feeding operations” with the Final Solution, the German model of at once seeing and not seeing clearly informs Foer’s thinking. The book is framed by tales of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose culinary repertoire consists of a single dish: roast chicken with carrots.

Rap Sheet (by Jill Lepore)
Why is the rate of homicide higher in the US than in Europe? There isn't a clear answer to this, but Lepore's article offers an interesting window into the history or murder in America.