24 June 2013

Seven Randomly Chosen Movies, Reviewed

(I took the list of movies I'd rated three stars or more on Netflix (about 650), assigned them numbers, and then generated seven random numbers on the interval.  The order has been randomized as well.)

Ikiru — Akira Kurosawa is famous for his samurai movies (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and so on), but this isn't that.  Ikiru follows an elderly civil servant after his diagnosis with terminal stomach cancer, as he struggles to find life in his last days.  It's one of those rare movies with both the courage necessary to make a big moral claim and the artistic skill necessary to back it up.  Probably most striking, it concludes by accusing its viewers (implicitly) of using the moral tale for a sentimental thrill and warns us against betraying its message.

Charlotte's Web — I haven't seen this cartoon since I was very small.  I remember it being very sad and very nice, and finding it very odd that there were talking pigs and spiders.

Minority Report — This is the only Tom Cruise movie I can think of that I really enjoyed.  What I remember enjoying about this film: recognizing Christopher Plummer in the old senator, the scene with the precog in which she helps Tom Cruise use an umbrella, the precog herself (who is she?), the user interface on the pre-crime computer system, the muted coloring of the film, the pacing.

Spider-Man — I haven't seen this since 2003.  Spider-Man was always my favorite superhero growing up.  I never liked Batman very much, because of his lack of powers and the darkness of Gotham in Tim Burton's vision of it.  Superman wasn't really around.  But I was a devoted watcher of the 90s Spider-Man cartoon series.  For a while I had an alarm on my wristwatch set for 3:30 p.m. to mark its beginning every schoolday.  Anyway, I really enjoyed the Tobey Maguire version.  It was exactly what it was supposed to be.  I remember wanting one of the sequels to involve Mysterio, since he was one of my favorite villains on the show, or Kingpin.  But for the trilogy the Goblin, Dr. Octopus and Venom were pretty great.  Venom especially...

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince — I saw this the day before I left Berlin for Zürich in July 2009.  It was the only movie I saw in Germany.  I remember thinking that the German dubbing substantially improved the acting quality over the usual performances, but being frustrated by the lack of punch in the film's climax.  Everything happened in a leisurely, melancholy way, when there ought to have been exciting music, and more screaming.

The Lion King — They say it's Hamlet.  It's not.  Jeremy Irons stars as Scar, the fratricidal usurper. Other surprises: James Earl Jones is Mufasa, Matthew Broderick is adult Simba, and Rowan Atkinson plays that bird.  Watch "be prepared," dubbed in German.

The Truman Show  It's the sort of thing I used to wonder about as a child: what if I'm the only real person and everyone else is just acting?  Interesting movie, fun to watch, and you can read moral quandaries into it if you feel like it.

23 June 2013


For my own purposes, a list of novels that may be worth reading in the near future:

The Magic Mountain
The Man Without Qualities
Group Portrait with a Lady
Infinite Jest
Gravity's Rainbow
Anna Karenina
Darkness at Noon

22 June 2013

Discretion in substantive editing.

A light editorial hand is nearly always more effective than a heavy one.  An experienced editor will recognize and not tamper with unusual figures of speech or idiomatic usage and will know when to make an editorial change and when simply to suggest it, whether to delete a repetition or an unnecessary recapitulation or simply to point it out to the author, and how to suggest tactfully that an expression may be inappropriate.  An author's own style should be respected, whether flamboyant or pedestrian.

Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, 2.48

21 June 2013

Hyperlinks and Allusions

The 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style says that navigation is central organizing principle of web-based publications.  "Readers will typically consult smaller pieces of content and will expect to be able to click through many parts of a work in a very short period of time."  One of my favorite exercises is to create a patchwork of references to excellent things, thereby appropriating (as it were) all the collected excellence of those others into one hub.  Hyperlinked text makes the fecundity of this sort of construction more readily apparent (since one's readers need not be in the know in order to appreciate the unmarked citations implicit in a text), and transforms a riddle-box piece of writing into one that deconstructs itself.


[The following is taken from Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia, as translated by E.F.N. Jephcott.]

A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph, check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it. Too close to his intention, to deep 'in his thoughts', he forgets to say what he wants to say.

No improvement is too small or too trivial to be worthwhile. Of a hundred alterations, each may seem trifling or pedantic by itself; together they can raise the text to a new level.

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish. Nothing should be thought worthy to exist simply because it exists, has been written down. When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it. Their richness and vigor will benefit other ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not to eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise one is suspected of poverty. 

The desire to avoid clichés should not, on pain of falling into vulgar coquetry, be confined to single words. The great French prose of the nineteenth century was particularly sensitive to such vulgarity. A word is seldom banal on its own: in music too, the single note is immune to triteness. The most abominable clichés are combinations of of words... utterly and completely, for better or worse, implemented and effected. For in them the brackish stream of stale language swills aimlessly, instead of being dammed up, thrown into relief, by the precision of the writer's expressions. This applies not only to combinations of words, but to the construction of whole forms. If a dialectician, for example, marked the turning point of his advancing ideas by starting with a 'But' at each caesura, the literary scheme would give the lie to the unschematic intention of his thought.

The thicket is no sacred grove. There is a duty to clarify all difficulties that result merely from esoteric complacency. Between the desire for a compact style adequate to the depth of its subject matter, and the temptation to recondite and pretentious slovenliness, there is no obvious distinction. suspicious probing is always salutary. Precisely the writer most unwilling to make concessions to drab common sense must guard against draping ideas, in themselves banal, in the appurtenances of style. Locke's platitudes are no justification for Hamann's obscurities.

Should the finished text, no matter of what length, arouse even the slightest misgivings, these should be taken inordinately seriously, to a degree all out of proportion to their apparent importance. Affective involvement in the text, and vanity, tend to diminish all scruples. What is let pass as a minute doubt may indicate the objective worthlessness of the whole. 

The writer ought not acknowledge any distinction between beautiful and adequate expression. He should neither suppose such a distinction in the solicitous mind of the critic, nor tolerate it in his own. If he succeeds in saying entirely what he means, it is beautiful. Beauty of expression for its own sake is not at all 'too beautiful', but ornamental, arts-and-crafts-y, ugly. But he who, on the pretext of unselfishly serving only the matter at hand, neglects purity of expression, always betrays his subject as well.

Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun, and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air. Metaphors flitting hastily through them become their nourishing prey. Subject matter comes winging toward them. The soundness of a conception can be judged by whether it causes one quotation to call up another. Where thought has opened up one cell of reality, it should, without violence from the thinker, penetrate the next. It proves its relation to the object as soon as other objects crystallize around it. In the light that it casts on its chosen substance, others begin to glow.

In his text, the writer sets up house. Just as he trundles papers, books, pencils, documents untidily from room to room, he creates the same disorder in his thoughts. They become pieces of furniture that he sinks into, content or irritable. He strokes them affectionately, wears them out, mixes them up, re-arranges, ruins them. For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live. In it he inevitably produces, has his family once did, refuse and lumber. But now he lacks a store room, and it is hard in any case to part from old scraps. So he pushes them along in front him him, in danger finally of filling his pages with them. The demand that one harden oneself against self-pity implies the technical necessity to counter any slackening of intellectual tension with the utmost alertness, and to eliminate anything that has begun to encrust the work or to drive along idly, which may at an early stage have served, as gossip, to generate the warm atmosphere conducive to growth, but is now left behind, flat and stale. In the end, the writer is not even allowed to live in his writing.

09 June 2013

Thoughts on a Four More Movies

The Debt — This is one of those movies with a great cast that fails to live up to the potential of the people in it.  Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington.  First off, Chastain and Worthington have terrible accents.  They don't sound German when they're trying to sound German.  They don't sound like they're native Yiddish or Hebrew speakers either.  Chastain sounds American, and Worthington sounds like an Aussie, or both thinly veiled.  That both are very well-cast in their roles — as (respectively) the terrified government agent and the pining loner incapable of reaching out to others or sharing his burdens — is unfortunately obscured by the bad voice acting.  Alas.  In the future timeline, Wilkinson and Mirren do a much better job.  Mirren's part is easily the best-acted in the film.  Beyond these technical shortcomings, the film suffers from an absence of meat.  Too little happens, too little is revealed to excuse the amount of tension we're put through.  Split-timeline stories generally need a lot of complexity in order to prevent the future narrative from making the past boring.  There is one complication in this story, it comes out of nowhere, and its implications are not sufficiently weighed out in screen time to make us appreciate its significance.  The unfortunate thing is that in essence the plot, the actors, the camerawork, and everything else are amazing.  I could see this being a brilliant movie telling a gripping story.  But it doesn't.  It barely tells a story at all.  I'm told the Israeli original is better.  (2)

X-Men: First Class — It has been three years since I last saw the original X-Men trilogy.  I remember finding the first one lame, the second very enjoyable, and the third over-kill.  This film has a cast loaded with little bits of excellence.  The weakest point is Kevin Bacon, whose German accent is horrible.  Aside from that, we have the amazing Michael Fassbender as Magneto, that kid from About a Boy as Beast, Jennifer Lawrence (whom I honestly really dislike) as Mystique, January Jones as diamond-lady, etc. etc.  It's nice to just go around saying "oh, it's that guy" in this movie.  You'll do it every few minutes.  In terms of content and execution, the film puts us through the ever-present mutants-vs.-humans debate, peppered with anti-Bush and pro-gay-liberation dialogue here and there.  What places this film rather differently from the earlier ones is that here Charles Xavier is a young rich kid and not a Gandalf type.  His schemes are half-baked, and his arrogance is clearly evident.  This de-stabilizes the exterminate/integrate dichotomy at the core of the series.  Here "integration" is represented by a naive, coddled intellectual who just wants things to stay where they are, more or less, and is eager to help out the authorities in any way he can.  "Extermination" is also somewhat confused here, represented by both a former Nazi and the son of one of his victims.  How exactly Magneto's psychological genesis is supposed to make sense, I have no idea, but 3/4 through he completely switches attitudes, going from a vengence-obsessed Wolverine type to a genocidal maniac.  What?  Oddly enough, Fassbender's Irish accent starts breaking through just when his character switches sides, which makes the transformation even more difficult to watch.  On the whole, however, execution is very good.  It's a pleasure to watch this movie. (3)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine — I had not seen this film before today.  I remember it coming out and remember vaguely intending to see it at some point, but never got around to it.  Honestly, it's kind of lame.  Much of the film seems to be an excuse to show how veiny Hugh Jackman's muscles are, including one especially laughable scene in which he wakes up screaming, flexing his neck at the camera.  The brutality of the movie makes it unpleasant to watch at times, with hints of Watchmen sprinkled throughout, though obviously without a social commentary.  As always in this franchise, the story must return to the integrate/exterminate question.  This time, the villain is a non-mutant military guy, bent on developing a mutant super-weapon to use to destroy all the other mutants and save humanity.  Since most of the core plot elements here have been worked through in earlier X-Men movies, it feels like there should be more work done here to make the story interesting.  There isn't, though.  Pretty much exactly what you expect to happen happens, and then the movie ends. (2)

Days of Heaven — It's difficult to talk about Malick's movies.  Perhaps this is in part because he's half the movie snobs' golden boy, and everything he does is so obscure and indeterminate.  Well, Days of Heaven is the one that cemented his film career, and kept him famous for 20 years until he did The Thin Red Line.  It's a beautiful movie.  There are many, many shots here that are simply perfectly composed and could be excised and displayed independently. My favorite is probably one toward the beginning of a freight train going over a bridge against a blue sky, with a thin trail of smoke lingering behind it.  What about the writing?  The plot?  I'm not sure about the plot, really.  The story, as I've said somewhere before, is strongly reminiscent of the adventure of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt, or with Abimalech, or both.  It was Abimalech, right?  Anyway, the best part is the little girl narrating, just like the best part of Badlands is Sissy Spacek's bizarre romantic account of the events we're watching.  There's not much I can say about it, though.  What does it all mean, if anything?  Unsure.  (4)