Archive | July, 2013

The New Yorker: July 8 & 15, 2013

10 Jul

Double issue this week. Kind of a weak excuse for a double issue if you ask me. Only 96 pages–they’re usually a lot longer than that. Hopefully my complaint will be noted.

Apparently this particular cover has generated a lot of heat. Controversy even. I’m not too interested in said controversy. I don’t like the cover, mostly because I think it’s stupid, not for what it says about the politics of gay marriage or Sesame Street. “OMG Bert and Ernie are totally gay!” said the boring liberal arts major who thinks he’s edgy and on the pulse of pop culture but who has nothing actually interesting to talk about.

That said, if you’re interested in the controversy, there was a good discussion about it on last week’s Culture Gabfest podcast, which I recommend in this specific instance and also recommend generally. I think June Thomas is mostly right on this issue.

Sounds like there’s an interesting exhibition of Edward Hopper drawings at the Whitney. I’m very interested in this kind of thing–most of the drawings are apparently studies for paintings. I’m pretty poorly informed when it comes to the process of art and artists, and is exactly the kind of thing museums should be trying to teach me about.

Interesting blurb about some new recordings of Arnold Schoenberg’s work. I’m not smart enough to enjoy Schoenberg, but I understand him a little bit due to an excellent college professor and a class I took on a whim. The class was called “Faust” and it was about Faust. we read several versions of the myth, including Thomas Mann’s. Mann was a friend of Schoenberg and based his main character in Doctor Faustus on him. So this genius professor spent a lecture trying to explain atonality and twelve-note composition. That was a great class. I wish I had taken more like it.

A good Comment this week by Jeffrey Toobin. His writing on the Supreme Court is always interesting and informative. I should read his book about it. James Surowiecki on Brazilian protests was interesting also, especially contrasted to the long piece about Guinea later in this issue. That is, this article was about how Brazil’s improving economy has led its growing middle class to expect more from the government. I get the impression that Guineans expect pretty much nothing from theirs.

I was very impressed by Jill Lepore’s Personal History. These are frequently kind of boring and self-indulgent. The structure she used was creative. Plus there was some informative meat there, which was worked in well and kept the piece flowing. It also kept the thing from being oppressively about someone dying, like these sometimes are. Thumbs up.

A really well-reported piece about iron ore mining and corruption in Guinea. This guy Steinmetz seems like a first-class dick. His tactics remind me a lot of American right-wing politics. Claim you’re the victim, insult people who disagree with you, issue blanket denials about anything unsavory about you, do anything you can to manipulate the media and create your own stories, etc. Patrick Radden Keefe also did a good job illustrating the general business environment of developing countries (bribes, kleptocracy, etc.) and laid out a pretty complicated story in an easy-to-read way. Good for him.

Also, the guy’s name is Steinmetz. Every time his name showed up I thought “Quit cogitating!”

I was less impressed by Nicholson Baker on LCD manufacturing in South Korea. There was some good stuff about the technology and business relationships, but a lot of the piece drifted into a childish travelogue. He’s raving about the food at the airport and how clean the trains are and shit. Like, “Things are so different here! And look at these plucky little South Koreans! They’re doing so great!” It distracted from the article’s focus and was kind of patronizing and pointless. A really weird overall tone.

The sketchbook drawing by Barry Blitt would have made a much better cover than the Bert/Ernie nonsense.

I always feel kind of insecure when there’s a story by a famous writer I’m not that familiar with. And there are a lot of famous writers in TNY. Tobias Wolff this week. Would I have a better understanding of this story if I had read This Boy’s Life? Probably not. But I always wonder. This was a pretty short piece, and was a lot more focused than some TNY stories. I thought it did a good job of making it’s point. Maybe the length helped it here–not any room to meander or let the examples of the wife’s behavior drag. B plus/A minus.

Louis Menand is one of my favorite contributors. His Critic at Large about voting rights was the highlight of the week. This kind of argumentative writing is hard to pull off. He did a good job of summarizing a lot of the civil rights movement with an eye toward what’s happening today, specifically after the recent Supreme Court ruling.

I’ve seen the trailer for The Way, Way Back several times. I have no interest in seeing the movie. It seems to me like the latest example of the kind of lazy, boring, formulaic “independent” movie that the liberal white upper class loves for some reason. Anthony Lane, as always, knocks it down with aplomb. He’s the best.

The Waldo one on page 72 was good, although I think using color is kind of cheating.

Caption contest entry
“I’m a Lions fan too!”

Much Ado About Nothing

9 Jul

This is a movie review. I’m reviewing individual movies now. I don’t know how that will work. Sometimes when I waited until the end of the month I’d forget stuff or find I didn’t really have anything to say. Of course I could just write my little thing whenever and just publish the monthly thing at the end of the month, but why not just post them when they’re written? So that’s what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll write about books and stuff too.

Starting my individual movie reviews with Shakespeare makes me a bit nervous. I don’t know that much about Shakespeare. There is a better than usual chance that I’ll say something genuinely stupid. That’s a risk I’m willing to take for you, loyal reader.

Here’s what I did. I got a copy of the play from the library and I read it. Then I saw the movie. I did this for a couple reasons. First, I like to think of myself as the kind of guy who just sits down and reads Shakespeare sometimes. Second, I wanted to make sure that I knew what was going on so I didn’t miss anything in the movie. Third, I wanted to understand the play going in so I could have a more intelligent opinion of the movie. Having read the play, I’d highly recommend it. It’s the shortest and easiest of the Shakespeare plays that I have read. I don’t know why this isn’t the work that high school kids start out on. It seems like such an easier entry point than Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth or whatever. I had a pretty bare bones version and I don’t think I missed on too much obsolete vocabulary etc. I also read the SparkNotes, which was kind of a dumb idea. It did illuminate a couple very minor things that I missed, but the analysis was basic and was obviously directed at high schoolers. I’m no scholar of the theater or anything, but I declare myself above the level of analysis of plays offered for free on the internet.

So now I’m going to talk about the actual movie. I thought it was good and I liked it. Is that insightful enough? Here is some film criticism that will probably be boring and reductive for people who know a lot about Shakespeare stuff.

The director is Joss Whedon. The movie is in black and white. Here’s the origin story as I understand it: Mr. Whedon had a contractually-mandated two week break between principal photography and editing of The Avengers. He decided to get some actors he knew/liked together at his house and shoot this movie. His wife was the production designer. I think this is a really cool idea and I would like it if more Hollywood big shots did interesting things like this.

The problem with a modern-dress Shakespeare adaptation is the obvious incongruity between now and Elizabethan England. One of the things about which much ado is made in the play is the virginity of Hero. In Shakespeare’s time, for a bride to not be a virgin was a family-ruining catastrophe. Not so much anymore. In fact, for the events of this play to happen in 2013 would be laughable and ludicrous. So as a viewer, you just have so accept the world of the play as it’s presented and not ask questions. That’s fine. The question for the director, then, is how faithfully do you try to stay in that world? The opening scene of the movie is Benedick leaving Beatrice’s room after, presumably, acts of sexual congress have taken place. This of course is not in the play. There are two ways to look at this: a) the whole sexual atmosphere of the play is outdated and ridiculous and the audience doesn’t really take it seriously as a realistic plot point anyway so who cares, or b) how dare anyone insert anything not in the original play and furthermore it’s totally incongruous with the Hero/Claudio situation so farts! I incline more to position (a). Plus there’s a whole thing here where Mr. Whedon makes Conrade into a girl who is having some kind of hanky-panky with Don John, which I thought was interesting and a little twist on the original that I liked.

A further note on this play and sex and class. It’s a huge disaster if Hero isn’t a virgin. When everyone finds out it was Margaret and not Hero getting down with Borachio, no one seems to care. I guess the servants can fuck whoever they want. I wonder if they were expected to get married.

I was surprised and impressed with the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice. They’re at the center of most of the play’s humor or wit or whatever. On the page that doesn’t really translate to actual laughs, more like, “Oh that’s clever I get why that would have been hilarious in 1598.” But there were several places where this movie was truly and legitimately funny, even though I knew exactly what was going to be said. Credit also due to Mr. Whedon, who did a good job of setting up all of the scenes where things get overheard. He did it in a way that was just a little goofy and tongue-in-cheek but not slapsticky or dumb. I wasn’t expecting that.

More on the acting. I thought it was uniformly good. I don’t know much about this kind of acting. These are mostly people from Mr. Whedon’s various TV shows, which are not what I would think of as breeding ground for Shakespeare-level chops. In addition to Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker as Benedick and Beatrice, I thought Clark Gregg was good as Leonato and Reed Diamond was good as Don Pedro. Two small parts of note: Tom Lenk as Verges and Riki Lindhome as Conrade. A lot of the Dogberry/Watch stuff didn’t translate as well as the rest of it for me. I thought Nathan Fillion was fine, but that’s one place where the language made it hard to keep up. When you’re making jokes out of malaprops on words no one uses they’re easy to miss. The physical stuff they did was very good, and Mr. Lenk was the best part of that for me. Ms. Lindhome is, as mentioned earlier, a Ms., not a Mr., playing a part that’s written as a man. She hardly has any lines, but she did a lot just by looking sardonic or sarcastic or cynical or like a bored teenager in the background. Ms. Lindhome is also better-known as Garfunkel of Garfunkel and Oates. They have funny songs.

There wouldn’t seem to be much room for creativity in a production like this, but the party scenes and a couple of the other scenes were staged really well. The acrobat stuff at the costume party was cool. The masks were as cool as they could be. (The costume party conceit is another thing that’s ridiculous on its face and you have to ignore.) The shot of Claudio in the pool with the snorkel and martini glass was a cool little visual that came out of nowhere. I also liked how all the guys wore suits all the time. That’s a cool look. We all take it for granted that that’s normal, but men constantly wearing suits in movies and on TV is quickly becoming highly odd. No one wears suits anymore. The most notable example I can think of is The Office. Are we to believe that office drones in Scranton wear suits to work every day? No chance.

Joss Whedon has a really nice house.

The New Yorker: July 1, 2013

3 Jul

I have mixed feelings this week. On one hand, I like it. On the other hand, the comic strip thing seems like a slippery slope. I’d prefer a single drawing. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a dumb complaint. There’s still a big drawing that’s the main focus.

I don’t usually read the letters to the editor, but I checked this week and was horrified to find that the page contained web comments “edited for length and clarity”. Web comments? Really? Christ. This is a magazine that used to be famous for not publishing any letters at all. Now they publish web comments. I wholeheartedly object.

Highlights of Talk were Spike Lee testifying at a City Council Subcommittee meeting about Madison Square Garden and career backup singer and upcoming documentary subject Darlene Love appearing on Letterman. David Letterman is great. There’s no one else who does what he does. I should watch his show more.

The piece about Lyme disease was interesting but I felt like it barely scratched the surface. It’s hard to get too deep in a 6-pager but I left wanting more. I didn’t realize Lyme disease was such a new phenomenon. I also wished Michael Specter had talked more about the relationships between the various bacteria involved and how people define “chronic Lyme” vis-à-vis those bacteria. I think a lot of self-diagnosed Lyme disease patients are people who simply preferred that disease to fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Sounds like there’s quite a lot of work to be done on the basic biology of the whole situation. That was news to me.

Always a pleasure to see John McPhee in the magazine. His recent series about the process of writing might be the best thing in the magazine over the last few years. I wouldn’t have picked him for a golf ball hound, but his story about it is immediately recognizable as McPhee. He’s the best.

I liked the reported story from Mali. Most of the middle east things in the magazine are depressing and tend towards the tedious, but this was pretty good. Maybe that’s just because I know so much less about Mali than Syria et al.

My biggest takeaway from the Ed Ruscha profile is that his name is pronounced Ru-SHAY. Museum wall cards don’t usually have pronunciation guides. Artist profiles are frustrating. Especially reading a hard copy. Not enough visual reference. Reading descriptions of paintings just doesn’t fly when the internet is a thing.

I haven’t read much at all of Joyce Carol Oates. I probably should. The big news about this story is that it’s mostly set on a hiking trail in Berkeley that I regularly hike on. Shoutout to Wildcat Peak trail. Stumbling on that kind of thing is awesome. Number two on my list of TNY personal connections. Number one was a Personal History by Aleksandar Hemon. It was about the neighborhood in Chicago where I used to live. He lived in the building next door to mine and drank at a bar I frequented. I wanted to carry the magazine with me down the street and tell strangers about it.

The book review about Chinese prisons was interesting. The real value of magazines like TNY is reading stuff like this that I’d never seek out on my own. I’ve found that by reading cover-to-cover every week I’m almost always glad I did for this reason.

There was a novel in Briefly Noted called Our Man in Iraq. Lame. Obviously an homage/rip-off/comment/whatever on Our Man in Havana. What a lazy way to name your book. Come up with something on your own. Our Man in Havana is good by the way. I like Graham Greene.

So David Denby really really liked World War Z. Didn’t see that coming. He called it “the most gratifying action spectacle in years”. Wow. I should just ignore the guy for my own sanity. Although I guess it’s fun to write stuff about him on the internet. Maybe he can become my nemesis. That’s probably unlikely. Bête noire might be more realistic.

Last week I made not of the differing treatment of acronyms. Specifically, that “MRI” was rendered without periods. Well guess what. This week there was more magnetic resonance imaging, but it was “M.R.I.”. Hmm. I don’t quite know what to say. Could this just be an oversight? That seems impossible. Also, this week DNA made an appearance sans periods. What’s going on over there?

Slow week. Cavemen on page 61 was OK.

Caption contest entry*
I don’t know how to tell you this, but…you’re a dog.

*Please note that there is an improperly drawn striped tie in this cartoon.