June 27, 2004

The Globalization of Sports

Posted by Ed

As most people who know me could tell you, I'm not exactly a big fan of athletics. Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote words close to my heart when he declared that, "Whenever I feel like exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes;" I know essentially nothing about the rules of team sports, the fortunes (and misfortunes) of athletic teams, or the lives and careers of celebrity athletes.

Nevertheless, it can be fascinating to see what the coverage of athletic events tells us about the world around us. Four years ago, during the last summer Olympics, I felt like U.S. coverage of the events had a weirdly retro feel--as if the Cold War were still alive and well. The clearest-cut example of this trend was the portrayal of the Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin as a menacing threat from the east; ominous music blared in the background whenever he appeared on screen, and his Russian-ness was made to seem exotic and threatening. Another TV story described a Russian-born swimmer whose father admitted that their family came to America in search of better athletic facilities (and a greater chance to win); nevertheless, American TV insisted on portraying the swimmer's life as an inspirational tale of escape from Russian tyranny. In so doing, the show missed out on a far bigger and more interesting story that affected the lives of dozens of prominent athletes--the effects of growing worldwide mobility on international athletic events. I like to think of this trend as the globalization of sports.

The new issue of Legal Affairs features a fascinating article on this very topic. In that article, Dana Mulhauser describes the case of Stephen Chomero, the 2003 world champion in the steeplechase, who has been barred from competing in the Olympics:

Last summer, Cherono moved from Kenya to the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, becoming another on the growing list of top-caliber amateur athletes who are switching citizenships in search of more money and better training facilities. The movement has been most noticeable in track, in which most of the top competitors are African and most of the top training facilities are not. Cherono—now identified on his Qatari passport as Saif Saaeed Shaheen—is joined in his new homeland by fellow former Kenyan Albert Chepkurui, a 5,000-meter runner who goes by the name Abdullah Ahma Hassan. Six other world-class Kenyan runners have changed nationalities since last August, with the other four going to Bahrain and the Netherlands.

The International Olympic Committee began to crack down hard on such moves about a year ago. An Olympic charter rule bars athletes such as Cherono from competing for one country during the three years after they have last competed for another. The only way around the rule is through a special waiver process requiring the approval of the new and old countries, the international track federation, and the IOC itself.

Previously, the IOC was deferential to waiver requests when both countries agreed. Yueling Chen, who in 1992 became the first Asian woman to win a gold medal in track, competed for the U.S. team in the 2000 Sydney games with Chinese and IOC approval. But now the IOC has made clear that it is reluctant to grant any waivers, certainly not when an athlete's prime motivation is financial. In the cases of Cherono and Chepkurui, the two runners managed to gain the approval of the track federation, of Qatar, and of Kenya (reportedly thanks to a healthy bribe from Qatar in the form of a sparkling new track facility). But the IOC blanched at approving the transfer, so the two athletes will have to watch the race from one of the few places hotter than Athens in August: Doha, Qatar.

On the one hand, this story shows the changes that have taken place in the world economy over the past few decades. At the same time, however, the story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the Olympics themselves. Who are the real competitors in the Olympics--the world's best individual athletes, or the countries they call home? How much should the world's most prominent series of athletic events consider the impact of its eligibility decisions on the quality of competition? How can we best understand international athletics in a time when international boundaries are becoming less important?

There are a lot of problems with U.S. coverage of the Olympics--foremost among them the preponderance of silly sob stories and the manufacturing of an artificial sense of drama. (Perhaps the war on terror will play a larger role in Olympic coverage this year, though the relative obscurity of Arabic athletes will probably decrease that story-line's prominence.) When the Olympics return to television later this year, I'll be interested in seeing whether American TV moves beyond its old Cold War storyline and recognizes the emergence of new stories for a new age.

Posted by Ed at 08:41 PM | Comments (1)

Sylvain Chomet's History Lesson

Posted by Ed

Back when I was an undergrad at Swarthmore College, one of my favorite professors introduced one lecture by saying that since we'd forget most of our history education whatever he did, he'd cut to the chase by telling us the three things he knew we'd remember years later. The first was that the people of Paris survived the siege of the city during the Franco-Prussian War by eating the animals in the zoo. (I often feel compelled to share this factoid with friends when we're visiting a zoo, especially when an unusually tasty-looking animal is nearby.) The second "fact we'd remember" requires a little bit of background: during Russia's Decembrist uprising of 1825, thousands of opponents of the new tsar, Nicholas I, gathered in St. Petersburg's Senate Square and chanted "Konstantin i konstitutsiia!" Many of the protestors thought they were chanting the names of the Archduke Constantine and his wife, but their chant was actually the Russian for "Constantine and a Constitution!" (Constitutions were an alien concept in Russia at the time...) Amusingly enough, I don't remember what the third item on the list was, but the class did help convince me to go to graduate school in history.

I was reminded of my professor's lecture earlier today, when I learned that the maker of one of my favorite recent movies, The Triplets of Belleville, will be producing an animated movie on a very familiar theme. According to The Scotsman, the French animator Sylvain Chomet is producing a movie called Barbacoa, set for release in 2005; the film "is set in Paris and is the story of the vet at the zoo fighting to protect Barbacoa the monkey and other animals being eyed by hungry children as Prussian troops lay siege to the city." (Other sources agree that Chomet's next film will deal with the adventures of a band of zoo animals during 1871's Paris Commune.) Sounds like a lot of fun!

Posted by Ed at 04:23 PM | Comments (5)

June 25, 2004

Hit the Road, Jack

Posted by Susan

Jack Ryan is now officially out of the Illinois Senate race, as comedians everywhere rejoice ("Oh, you meant I should go for the swing vote?"). According to Will (who presumably means to refer to Jack Ryan rather than former scandal-plagued attorney general and erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan), Jim Oberweis is being considered as a replacement candidate. If this is true, it seems like a poor choice--Oberweis has virtually no political experience, unless one counts his previous failed attempts to run for office, and the only two things I can recall about his campaign for the nomination were his extreme xenophobia and his somewhat sketchy use of his company's funds to indirectly promote his campaign (both of these are described in the candidate profiles at Gapers Block, which is presently having server problems; here's a cached copy). The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, names State Board of Education Chairman Ron Gidwitz, third-place Senate primary finisher Steve Rauschenberger, and guy-with-similar-name-to-outgoing-senator-Peter-Fitzgerald Patrick Fitzgerald as possible nominees.

via Chicagoist.

Posted by Susan at 05:07 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2004

Biology Links

Posted by Susan

A few interesting links, largely from Nature:

  • Mental illness, particularly depression, is on the rise in Asia. The article covers both the social issues shaping this epidemic and the difficulties of psychiatric care in Asia--not only the cultural ones (mental illness seen as a sign of weakness, different ways of expressing symptoms between Asian and Western patients) but the more interesting (to me, anyway) pharmacogenetic issues. Many psychoactive drugs (many drugs in general, really) are metabolized by the liver enzyme CYP2D6. Polymorphisms that decrease the activity of this enzyme lead to poor metabolism of drugs, which manifests as increased side effects. Asian populations have a relatively high rate of CYP2D6 alleles that are associated with poor metabolism. Unless pharmacology companies develop drugs that are better metabolized by Asian populations, psychotherapists or primary-care physicians will bear the burden of altering dosing to minimize side effects (and of ensuring patient compliance).
  • Engineering monogamy: a group studying prairie and meadow voles has found that affiliative behavior--basically, the preference of monogamy or promiscuity--can be modulated by the expression of a single gene, the vasopressin 1a receptor, in the ventra pallidum (in the forebrain) of male voles.
  • Counterintuitively, antigenic switching is most effective when the changes aren't drastic. Antigenic switching is one process by which pathogens (such as P. falciparum, the causative agent of malaria) avoid immune detection--basically, once the host has produced enough antibodies against the original surface proteins of the pathogen to clear the infection, the pathogen alters its surface proteins. In their paper, Gupta and colleagues establish a model of immune kinetics which, by considering both persistent responses to major epitopes and transient responses to minor ones, explains several previously unexplained epidemiological observations.
  • Also, as RNAi-based therapies begin to enter clinical trials, I thought I might mention a cute system I read about recently. The Sleeping Beauty (SB) synthetic transposon is a relatively new tool for gene delivery and insertional mutagenesis in vertebrate cells (transposon-based systems seem to be more common in invertebrates or plants). Some very clever researchers used SB to deliver RNA hairpins to mammalian cells, thereby creating knockdown cell lines. (The system has the overly cute name of Maleficent).

Posted by Susan at 05:17 PM | Comments (2)

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm just back from Boston, where I spent a very productive week-and-a-half reading Soviet archival documents in the Harvard libraries. (If only Chicago were as rich as Harvard... We only have one of the six sets of microfilmed files I'd most like to read, and Harvard has all six.) Here are some links:

  • In Prospect, Jo Tatchell discusses the writing career of Saddam Hussein and the joys of dictator-lit.
  • In Bookforum, Craig Calhoun reviews Robert Merton's posthumously published book on serendipity.
  • Louis Menand and Timothy Noah discuss Lynne Truss's approach to grammar.
  • The New York Times reviews a "wickedly revisionist" TV show on the American revolution.
  • What should we make of Bill Keller's first year at The New York Times? Todd Gitlin discusses this question in The American Prospect.
  • Dan Kennedy of The Boston Phoenix profiles Mark Steyn, "the most toxic right-wing pundit you’ve never heard of."
  • In The London Review of Books, John Connelly reviews Norman Davies's new book on the Warsaw Uprising.

I may have more links later, and I'll be back to more substantive blogging sometime later.

Posted by Ed at 05:05 PM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2004

More reading

Posted by Matt

Briefly, thoughts on a couple of things I read recently:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I was in the mood for something light and amusing, and, as bad fiction goes, this was entertaining enough. The writing is poor: most of the adjectives and all the adverbs could be struck out to good effect, and the dialogue sounds as if the characters know they are in a suspense novel. It's amusing that every academic seems to be "venerable," "revered," or "renowned." And so many things are "astonishing"! I feel sorry for those at Harvard, where apparently all the girls smile knowingly due to their awareness of the sacred feminine.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. This was certainly an improvement over the former in terms of literary quality, but I couldn't help feeling that I was reading more or less the same story over and over again. Typically they are vignettes of a relationship that has grown stagnant, or that is collapsing. The characters all seem bored, or boring, and this makes it harder to feel any sympathy for them. Careful attention is paid to the food that is being prepared in many of the stories, and also to the characters' attire. This might help add authenticity to stories of immigrants from India, but I would have preferred that more attention be given to developing characters I could care about. Perhaps I am being too harsh: in places the stories break through this monotony and at times they are moving. The ending of the last story, musing on the strangeness of the many places and people one comes to know in a lifetime, is one example. These stories aren't bad, and if I hadn't read them all in one stretch my feeling about this book would be better.

Five more days before I go back to Chicago for a while: time to decide what to read next....

On an unrelated note, how is gmail working for people? I tried sending some mail to my gmail account from my uchicago account, and after about a day it still hasn't shown up.

Posted by Matt at 02:13 AM | Comments (1)

June 18, 2004

The Gift

Posted by Matt

Today I finished reading Nabokov's The Gift, the last of his novels written in Russian. (The translation is by Michael Scammell, with Nabokov's input.) I really enjoyed this novel. It's Nabokov's tribute to Russian literature, and not having read Gogol or Pushkin, I'm sure there is much that I missed. But as usual with Nabokov, much of the joy of reading this book comes from the incredible prose.

One passage I particularly liked is this one near the end, in which the main character, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is falling asleep:

As always on the border between consciousness and sleep all sorts of verbal rejects, sparkling and tinkling, broke in: "The crystal crunching of that Christian night beneath a chrysolitic star"... and his thought, listening for a moment, aspired to gather them and use them and began to add of its own: Extinguished, Yasnaya Polyana's light, and Pushkin dead, and Russia far... but since this was no good, the stipple of rhymes extended further: "A falling star, a cruising chrysolite, an aviator's avatar..." His mind sank lower and lower into a hell of alligator alliterations, into infernal cooperatives of words. Through their nonsensical accumulation a round button on the pillowcase prodded him in the cheek; he turned on his other side and against a dark backdrop naked people ran into the Grunewald lake, and a monogram of light resembling an infusorian glided diagonally to the highest corner of his subpalpebral field of vision. Behind a certain closed door in his brain, holding on to its handle but turning away from it, his mind commenced to discuss with somebody a complicated and important secret, but when the door opened for a minute it turned out that they were talking about chairs, tables, stables.

My sleep cycle has been very erratic the past few weeks, and at times I found myself reading this book at moments at which I was drifting off to sleep, the language mingling with my final physics homeworks, and I experienced similar feelings of complicated and important connections that, on jolting awake, were nonsense. It's an interesting feeling, the half-asleep state in which ordinary things seem infused with new meanings coming from dreams. Nabokov's descriptions of this sort of state are beautiful.

Another passage I liked:

But sometimes I get the impression that all this is a rubbishy rumor, a tired legend, that is has been created out of those same suspicious granules of approximate knowledge that I use myself when my dreams muddle through regions known to me only by hearsay or out of books, so that the first knowledgeable person who has really seen at the time the places referred to will refuse to recognize them, will make fun of the exoticism of my thoughts, the hills of my sorrow, the precipices of my imagination, and will find in my conjectures just as many topographical errors as he will anachronisms.

The story itself is compelling. At first I was a bit bored, but the book caught my interest fairly quickly, and its views of the central character (as a struggling writer, as a child wishing he could accompany his father on his long journeys, as a young man in love) are strengthened by the analogs to Nabokov's own life. Fyodor is one of the more completely sympathetic main characters I have encountered in a Nabokov novel, and the love story here is not colored by moral ambiguity as, say, that in Ada is. The Gift falls short of some of Nabokov's later novels in greatness, but it is a substantial and enjoyable work of fiction.

Posted by Matt at 11:49 PM | Comments (2)

June 15, 2004

History links of the day

Posted by Ed

Last weekend I came home to Boston for a week, mainly to do some research in the Harvard libraries. That's cut down on my blogging time, but I'll be posting more soon. Until I do, here are some more links:

  • In the new Washington Monthly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiles Niall Ferguson, everyone's favorite conservative Scottish historian. In another Monthly article, Adam Clymer reviews Joel Achenbach's new book on George Washington.
  • In American Heritage, Joshua Zeitz argues that a key to understanding the current plight of the Democrats is to understand the divisions that plagued the party at its 1964 convention.
  • Yesterday's New York Times features this fascinating article, which discusses the discovery of two first-person narratives written by freed slaves. As the article points out, these narratives " speak to a lively debate in recent slavery studies: to what degree did Lincoln emancipate the slaves, and to what degree were they already emancipating themselves as the war ravaged the South?"
  • In The American Scientist, Anthony Grafton reviews David Christian's recent attempt to write an introduction to "big history" and discusses the relationship between history and science. A physicist named Shawn Carlson, meanwhile, reviews several recent books on Benjamin Franklin's science.
  • The Washington Post discusses how George Washington's home at Mount Vernon is being updated for the times. (I wish the article had discussed whether the changes are for the best: do visitors to Mount Vernon really need to see "a Hollywood-style film about George Washington, a multimedia presentation of the crossing of the Delaware River that includes snow falling on visitors, and new displays for the rhinestone shoe buckles he wore at his inauguration, his ceremonial sword and his famous false teeth"?)
  • Slate discusses why Soviet wrestlers are mourning the death of Ronald Reagan.
  • What happened to a missing Diego Rivera mural depicting Mao and Stalin? The Seattle Times reports.
  • What lessons should Russia teach us about Iraq? The Gadflyer reports.
  • Reading several recent posts by Josh Marshall, I've been reminded of just how much America has changed since 1960. Until recently, John Kerry's Catholic faith was barely noticed by the press--a stark contrast with John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign. (That's changed now that the voting records of Catholic politicians have become increasingly prominent, and now that George W. Bush has begun talking U.S. politics with the pope.) In 1960, Kennedy had to fend off charges that he'd be an unthinking supporter of the pope; in 2004, Kerry has needed to fight off accusations that he's been unsufficiently supportive of Catholic doctrine. Finally, as Marshall points out, Kennedy "had to foreswear that he'd follow the instructions of the Pope in his decisions of governance. Today we have a Protestant born-again [president] who tries to enlist the Pope to intervene in an American election."

On an unrelated note, I was weirdly intrigued by Chris Suellentrop's Slate assessment of Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield. It's a fairly convincing account of how one of the least amusing comic strips around became a marketing juggernaut.

Posted by Ed at 12:21 PM | Comments (1)

June 12, 2004


Posted by Matt

Update: I've uploaded some pictures from graduation.

My graduation ceremony was this morning. I'm now officially an alumnus of the U of C. It's a very odd feeling to realize that I'm no longer a student here. It's mostly been a very good four years.

The ceremony itself was nice enough. Mearsheimer gave a speech about the role of America in the global balance of power that managed to be somewhat political and yet still not seem inappropriate to me. The students who spoke also did fairly well. One question still troubles me about graduation: why have the seniors line up in the overly hot Henry Crown Field House when the new Ratner gym is large and air-conditioned?

Last night was the reception at the Museum of Science and Industry, where I spent a long time searching for a few people and not finding them. Eventually my friend Jess showed up after the majority of the crowd had left, and we spent a while exploring. The MSI is very entertaining when it's almost empty, but it becomes spooky when doors start being locked and you wonder if you're going to be shut up in part of the museum all night. Which could be pretty fun, depending on how much of the museum you would have access to.

Tonight Jess convinced me we should go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which to my surprise was still showing (AMC River East). Ed has blogged about this film here and here. For the most part I agree with him. I enjoyed the movie, but it did seem to me to have significant problems. It focused too much on the Lacuna employees. I agree that there was some realism in the depiction of the relationship between Clementine and Joel, but I still feel like the film's treatment of them fell short of the mark. The reasons they give for their decision to erase their memories of the other don't really sound sufficient for such a drastic action. Sure, we're told that Clementine's impulsive, and we also see this, but to erase her memories of Joel seems far beyond impulsive. I don't feel like their relationship was treated in enough detail for the plot's basic premise to seem realistic or compelling. I don't see how anyone could have viewed this film as being romantic; its treatment of relationships seemed to me to be pessimistic and cynical. For instance, we see Joel confiding in two of his friends who are a couple, and their own problems surface during this discussion. This detail didn't seem to me to serve much of a function, unless it is meant to reinforce the pessimistic idea that relationships are all fragile and strife-ridden.

In any case, I should finish packing and get some sleep.

Posted by Matt at 03:56 PM | Comments (2)

Saturday Morning Links

Posted by Ed

Some links to amuse, enlighten, or entertain you:

  • The New York Times profiles the folklorist Adrienne Mayor, who's written some fascinating stuff on knowledge of fossils among native Americans and the ancient Greeks.
  • Is America really a politically polarized nation? In The New York Times, John Tierney asks a group of experts who disagree with the conventional wisdom.
  • The Washington Post looks at the relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin.
  • From AL Daily: Michael Lind tells us more about the dark side of Winston Churchill, while First Things reviews the travel writing of Evelyn Waugh.
  • The Morning News features an odd little interview with Martha Nussbaum. (via Butterflies and Wheels)
  • The Washington Post interviews Mikhail Gorbachev on the end of the Cold War.
  • The Boston Globe ideas section interviews Marcus Rediker (a labor historian who's turning his attention to pirates) and looks at the novels of Philip Pullman.
  • Can a computer uncover artistic forgeries? The New York Times reports.
  • According to The New York Times Magazine, Dublin has been forced to ask itself an unexpected question: how do you celebrate Bloomsday without any Blooms? What's the state of Irish judaism?

I'll probably be too busy to post more today, but I'll be back tomorrow... As I often do, I expect to add some Sunday links to the list above.

The most interesting of these articles, I thought, was the New York Times profile of Adrienne Mayor. An excerpt:

[W]hen Ms. Mayor's first book, "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton University Press), came out four years ago, this late-blooming outsider with no advanced degrees caused something of a sensation among high-ranking anthropologists, paleontologists, geologists and others. She used Roman and Greek texts to argue that some fossils were used to support or create myths about strange creatures in the ancient world.

"Art historians think that Ms. Mayor may well have solved the puzzle of the Corinthian vase depicting Heracles shooting arrows at the head of the monster of the Troy legend," John Noble Wilford wrote in The New York Times in 2000. She noticed that the mysterious monster's head closely resembled the skull of an extinct giraffe.

Now Ms. Mayor is at it again. She said her third and latest book, a combination of history, archaeology, folklore and old-fashioned detective work, would be the first scholarly attempt to set the record straight about Native American contributions to paleontology.

American museums often juxtapose Indian artifacts with dinosaur remains, Ms. Mayor said, but curators never seem to make the connection between local native cultures and the evidence of remarkable creatures from another age that the Indians had encountered on their lands. ("The message you get is that both are extinct," she said.) So she took on the task of documenting the extensive paleontological knowledge of many Indians, expanding a historical record that showed that they often served as sources and guides for early fossil expeditions.


The Comanche people in Oklahoma, she said, told stories about grandmothers' sending them out to find the bones of monsters, which they would grind into a powder for medicine or mix with water to set bones.

"They said you could tell if it was the right bone if it stuck to your tongue," Ms. Mayor said. Researching that report, she discovered that paleontologists do indeed lick bones to tell whether they are real fossils, because the real ones cling to the tongue. (Fossil bone is hydrophilic, which means that it absorbs moisture.)

Fun stuff!

Posted by Ed at 10:10 AM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2004

Our Hero

Posted by Susan

No, Ed is not the only author of this blog, though I admit he certainly has been lately. While I intend to write more substantive things later, I had to post this now:

Christian Kammerer's Prion Song is now online (.wav format). The Prion Song is more than just a wonderful song about renegade peptides set to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; it is (much like Scav Hunt) a symbol of everything that is good about the University of Chicago and its students. Enjoy.

Posted by Susan at 02:55 PM | Comments (3)

June 09, 2004

Lincoln's Suicide Poem

Posted by Ed

Earlier this week, I linked to a New Yorker "talk of the town" piece in which Joshua Wolf Shenk discusses the apparent discovery of Abraham Lincoln's lost "suicide poem." (As Shenk points out, Lincoln scholars disagree on whether the 36-line poem from 1838 can be attributed to Lincoln; Douglas Wilson thinks that it can, but David Herbert Donald disagrees. At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker quotes an email from Michael Burlingame noting that the verse "certainly sounds like Lincoln.")

The poem isn't exactly a masterpiece of American literature, but I still find it oddly intriguing. Here's the conclusion:

Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

Why am I intrigued by such a melodramatic little verse? Two reasons, actually. First, I've always found Lincoln's melancholy and fatalism extremely appealing--perhaps, in part, because I have a melancholic disposition myself. Lincoln's words can be depressing, but it shaped some of his greatest speeches and I think it helped to influence one of his most appealing characteristics, his realistic attitude toward war. I don't know that I'd agree with all of Lincoln's war-time decisions (his record on civil liberties, for example, wasn't the greatest), but when you read his letters and his speeches, you get the sense that he had no illusions about what he was doing; contrast this outlook with that of another war-time president I admire, Franklin Roosevelt, who often seemed a little too certain that all of his decisions were right.

Second, you can make a case that Lincoln's verse-writing is closely connected to his oratory: as Garry Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg, "Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry." Would Lincoln have been such a great speaker if he hadn't been willing to dabble in mediocre verse? Is the greater popularity of poetry in 19th-century America in any way connected to the superior quality of American oratory before 1900? (It's hard to imagine George W. Bush ever writing a poem, after all, even if his wife once tried to make us think he had; then again, some of the wisest sayings of our president have been combined to form the verse masterpiece "Make the Pie Higher!") It's fascinating, then, to read some of the Lincoln poems whose authorship is not in dispute.

I wish I had something to add to this discussion; I suspect that a Lincoln scholar could rip holes in the analysis I've offered above. I'll look forward, though, to learning more about scholarly reaction to the poem--and to how it changes historians' view of my favorite American president.

Posted by Ed at 06:19 PM | Comments (1)

June 08, 2004

Perlstein on Reagan

Posted by Ed

Yesterday I linked to some of the more interesting articles that have been written in the wake of Ronald Reagan's death, but I somehow missed the best article of the lot: a Rick Perlstein piece on the late president that appeared yesterday in Salon. Perlstein's tone is exactly right: he's critical of the dead without sounding nasty or disrespectful, and he begins with a nice point that had never occurred to me. ("I feel bound to respect Ronald Reagan, as every American should -- not least because he chose a career of public service when he could have made a lot more money doing something else, and not least because he took genuine risks for peace.") Here's one key passage:

It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.

Nowadays, as we grapple with the malevolence of President Bush, it's Reagan we remember as the sensible one. At the risk of speaking ill of the dead, let memory at least acknowledge that there was much about Reagan that was not so sensible.

Read the whole article: it's well worth sitting through an ACLU ad.

Posted by Ed at 11:27 AM | Comments (2)

Alfonso Cuaron and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Posted by Ed

I'm not usually a huge fan of behind-the-scenes Hollywood gossip: whether I enjoy a movie or not, I don't usually care which of its stars were in the midst of a torrid love affair during filming, and I'm not terribly interested in how a director or an actor succeeded in winning himself a choice part. Delightful as it is to learn that Vin Diesel really wanted to audition for the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, I'd much rather just watch the movie.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. To name just one example, I'd love to know how Alfonso Cuaron came to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and--even more importantly--how he won the authority needed to put his own personal stamp on the film. Cuaron isn't necessarily the first director who leaps to mind for an adaptation of an English children's book, after all. True, he did direct a highly regarded adaptation of The Little Princess, but he's better known for his racy Mexican sex comedy, Y Tu Mama Tambien; according to one press report I've seen, the producers of the Harry Potter series were so worried about Cuaron's influence on the cast that they included a clause in his contract that banned him from swearing in front of the movie's child actors. In the end, however, Cuaron didn't just win the job of director, but injected a real sense of liveliness, charm, and wonder into the series.

The first two Harry Potter films, I thought, never quite seemed like real movies: they seemed like a series of video illustrations of the book. (Chris Columbus, the director, was so determined to avoid deviating from the novels that he never gave his movies a life of their own.) Most film critics agreed with me. In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell likened the first movie to a "film equivalent of a book on tape" while A.O. Scott compared the first two movies to "a staged reading with special effects"; David Edelstein has even argued that in the hands of their first director, the world of the Harry Potter movies felt like "a synthetic movie theme park." Those movies did a decent job of showing us what the world of the books might look like, but they had no life of their own to speak of.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is visually spectacular, and--under Cuaron's guidance--Hogwarts seems like a real place, full of a charm and character all its own, and not merely like a movie set. The movie's script is quirkier and more charming than either of its predecessors, and even when it departs from the novel, it matches the spirit of Rowling's work far better than its literal-minded predecessors. Every child actor in the film does a much better job than in the past; the pacing is faster and more natural; the film as a whole shows us more of a sense of wonder than either of its predecessors, even though many of its plot elements are familiar to us from Chris Columbus's work. The first two movies, I'd argue, are mildly entertaining for people who liked the books, but the third is an entrancing and delightful story that I'd recommend to anyone.

I don't want to suggest that the movie was perfect, of course. In fact, I can see three major problems with it:

  • First, as entertaining as Prisoner of Azkaban is for fans of the books, if you don't know the basic story of the seriess, then you'll probably get hopelessly lost watching its latest installment. Plenty of details from the books are left unexplained--the murder of Harry's parents is scarcely mentioned, for instance, and concepts like animagi are only mentioned briefly. I suspect that most of the movie's viewers know the books inside and out, which decreases the seriousness of this problem, but just a little more detail would have made the movie more successful in its own right. You might even be able to make the case that you have to have read the book to enjoy seeing the movie, though I suspect that just a little familiarity with the world of the books (or with the past movies) is more than enough.

  • One problem with Cuaron's film, I felt, had more to do with the book it was based on than with the movie itself: like the other books in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has an odd and un-cinematic plot trajectory. The first three quarters of the book are fairly short on action; instead, we're treated to charming interludes from Harry's school year and gradually introduced to clues about the story's underlying mystery. Then, all of a sudden, there's an explosion of activity most of the way through the novel, leading to not one, but two, dramatic climaxes.

    That structure took its toll on the movie, I thought. The early parts of the film often involved rapid-fire movement from scene to scene, with very little transition between them; this gave the movie a slightly choppy feel. The movie's twin climaxes, moreover, make it hard to maintain a feeling of tension, though I thought that each climax was paced as effectively as possible under the circumstances. I worried that the story of Sirius Black didn't get enough attention; in the novels, Black was a specter haunting the book from start to finish, but in the movie, his role is somewhat diminished until the end.

  • Most importantly, the larger story arc of the series gets short shrift. Cuaron never really fills us in about the details of the backstory, and the relationship of the movie's events to Voldemort's rise to power is never fully explained. The movie never tells us that James Potter was an animagus, for example--and so it also never gets around to telling us why Harry's patronus was a stag. We never learn how Harry's parents were betrayed--and without knowing that Peter Pettigrew took over Sirius Black's role as their secret keeper, we have no way of understanding how Lupin suddenly figured out that Sirius was innocent. Moreover, Cuaron de-emphasizes the rivalry between Snape and Black and never tells us that Potter and friends specifically became animagi out of their friendship with Lupin; we never find out that the four friends designed the Marauder's Map, or that Snape was nearly bitten by Lupin the werewolf because of one of Sirius's practical jokes. (Just as importantly, we never learn why Black came to Hogwarts: to protect Harry from Pettigrew.) We do get to see Sibyl Trelawney's prophecy, but Cuaron could have emphasized its significance and driven home the fact that the events of the movie helped Voldemort's rise to power by giving him back one of his most fervent supporters. One short speech by Dumbledore would have helped tie all these threads together.

    If you're a fan of the books, then these oversights might not really matter. (If I recall correctly, the movie series as a whole has deemphasized the rivalry between Snape and James Potter, and generally isn't very good in explaining the backstory.) Based on the script alone, however, the plot of the movie seems like a loosely connected series of events that happened to take place in the same school year; one of the strengths of the book, I've always felt, was that it brilliantly tied the story of Harry's parents and their friends together with Harry's story to produce one intriguing and fast-paced narrative. That element of the books is almost completely lost.

Michael Gambon's portrayal of Albus Dumbledore was, I would argue, a perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole. Gambon's predecessor in the role, Richard Harris, did a decent job, I think--he had the look and feel of the part down just right--but I worried that he was just a little too bland. Harris's Dumbledore, I'd argue, looked more like a generic movie wizard than like any one particular character; moreover, he sometimes seemed a little too sharp and on-the-ball. The real Albus Dumbledore was a great wizard and a majestic figure, but even Ron Weasley--one of his greatest admirers--sometimes wonders if he's crazy, and Draco Malfoy has no problem mocking him for his apparent cluelessness. Richard Harris never emphasized the spacier side of Dumbledore's personality, and I get the sense that he could bite Malfoy's head off if he felt like it.

Gambon's Dumbledore is a much more appealling figure. His voice is livelier, his speeches convey more personality, and the eccentric side of his personality comes to the forefront. My only concern is that Gambon sometimes looks too much like an aging ex-hippy, and too little like a wise old sage; what's more, when you combine Emma Thompson's eccentric portrayal of Sibyl Trelawney with Gambon's Dumbledore, the Hogwarts spaciness quotient shoots through the roof. Gambon and Cuaron have taken an underdeveloped and neglected part of Dumbledore's personality and given it the attention it deserves, but they never really portray him as a complete character. One brief scene, in which Dumbledore debriefs Harry on the events of the movie and explains the significance of Pettigrew's betrayal, would have both added to out understanding of Dumbledore and clarified the larger story arc of the series.

In short, Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban--like Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore--is a brilliant and lively interpretation of the novel, even when it doesn't precisely match my own interpretation. Under Cuaron's direction, Gary Oldman emphasizes the crazy side of Sirius Black but plays down his sinister reputation. There's a romantic tension between Ron and Hermione that's far stronger than in the books. Emma Thompson's Sibyl Trelawney comes across as a crazy ex-hippy, but not necessarily as incompetent. (We don't see too much of her, after all, and in one key scene, she actually utters a prophecy!) You can argue with any of these interpretations, but together, they give the movie a sense of liveliness that was completely lacking in its predecessors.

Even more importantly, the setting of Prisoner of Azkaban is a visually spectacular world with a character all its own. The film comes across as grittier, grainier, and more real; it never seems squeaky clean, like its predecessors, and instead comes across as a dark and gloomy place with lots of personality. (The first films sometimes seemed too picture-perfect: I can almost imagine Daniel Radcliffe's hairdressers leaping up to adjust his hair every time they possibly could during the filming of the first two movies. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see that Harry's hair was often quite messy in the third movie--just as Rowling said it should be!) I often loved Cuaron's interpretation of the movie even when it didn't match my own: Buckbeak's executioner, for example, comes across as a chilling, picturesque, and distinctively English character who could have come straight out of Dickens.

What impressed me most, however, was Cuaron's willingness to move beyond Rowling's text. The script was loaded with jokes that never appear in the book: Cuaron treats us to a delightful vignette of the Fat Lady singing, for instance, and I loved the scene where Malfoy sends Harry a threatening note. I wasn't as big a fan of the many shrunken heads that appear in the movie, but details like this--even when they had no basis in the original novel--were exactly the sort of quirky and charming touches we'd expect from Rowling. Cuaron succeeded in replicating the spirit of the novel even when he departed from a literal interpretation of its plot.

It's easy to quibble about the movie, of course. I'm not sure that Cuaron's film ever achieves the psychological realism of the novel, for example, and I was slightly disappointed in his portrayal of the Dementors: they looked really cool as they hovered in the air, but whenever we moved close to an individual dementor, it seemsed less lifelike and less real. (We also never really see, for ourselves, that they suck all the happiness and joy from their victims, leaving them only with their worst memories.) It would be too much to expect the movie to be a perfect adaptation of the book, however, and I was delighted to see a film as quirky, as clever, as fast-paced, and as visually stunning as this one.

Posted by Ed at 10:55 AM | Comments (5)

June 07, 2004

Ronald Reagan, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

As most of my readers are undoubtedly aware, former President Ronald Reagan died this weekend at the age of 93. He was my second least-favorite president since World War II and I think he was a disaster as our country's leader, but I've always had the impression that he meant well and had good intentions. That's more than you can say about other recent presidents.

My own memories of Reagan are fairly hazy. The 1981 attempt on Reagan's life is the first historical event I can remember (I turned five the next month); I'd been misbehaving that afternoon, if I recall correctly, and I was surprised to see just how shaken my mother was when she heard that Reagan had been shot. I can remember saying something along the lines of "Why are you so upset? I thought you didn't like him!", to which she replied, "I voted against him, but I didn't want him killed!" That's not a bad lesson in democracy (and basic human decency) for your average four-year-old... Three years later, I went to bed on election night convinced that Walter Mondale was going to be the next president of the U.S. (he sounded really confident when he appeared on the news, after all!), and was shocked the next morning to hear that Reagan had won again. I can remember Reagan's speech after the Challenger disaster in 1986, and I have a lot of memories of the 1988 election, but to me, Reagan will always be a distant, avuncular, and sometimes even sinister figure from my past.

What's the best way to remember a figure like this? There's a part of me (as my few long-term readers may remember) that delights in the nasty obituary. Hunter Thompson's 1994 obituary of Richard Nixon, for example, is a small masterpiece, and its opening paragraphs always make me smile:

Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing -- a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon."

I have had my own bloody relationship with Nixon for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Nixon had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Nixon all their lives. My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together.

Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you."

Even bad presidents deserve a lot of respect, however, so I hope that no one rushes to give Reagan the Hunter S. Thompson treatment for another week or two. (I don't think I could ever bring myself to write a nasty tribute to Reagan--in part, perhaps, because I lack the courage of my convictions, and in part because my memories of Reagan are too hazy for me to bring much passion to the job.) Nevertheless, I still think that non-traditional tributes--both positive and negative--can help us remember the dead and honor their legacy.

Some of the best comments on the dead transcend the glories of the nasty obituary by focusing not just on the life of the deceased, but on its meaning and on the way it will be remembered. Scott McLemee, for example, has the following to say on his blog:

Somebody once said: "I always hope that Kenny Rogers is in good health, because when he dies they're gonna play his songs on the radio all day long."

And in much that spirit of loathing at the prospect of the inevitable forced march through certain memories -- a public celebration of things better off buried in an unmarked spot, on a moonless night -- I have, for some years now, dreaded the news of Ronald Reagan's passing.

This morning, a thought came to mind -- the aftermath of digesting as much of last night's Sixty Minutes as we could stand. (Switched it off halfway through; the gorge becoming buoyant at hearing they were about to do a segment on the man's irrepressible sense of humor.) To whit: Let nobody say that liberalism has a monopoly on the therapeutic conception of politics. "He changed America by making us feel good about ourselves."

What a vacuously privatized notion of leadership (let alone of politics or the common good). Jimmy Carter got no end of grief for having read Christopher Lasch and coming forth with that bit about the nation's "malaise." But the candidate who "lifted" that malaise did so only by giving the culture of narcissism a happy pill.

Or as Steven Shapiro puts it at his always-interesting site The Pinocchio Theory, the Great Communicator "created an ugly social and cultural climate in America, one that is still with us today: a climate of cynicism, greed, selfishness, bigotry, frat-boy self-congratulatory boorishness, and blame-the-victim disdain for 'losers' and the weak, all buttressed by a willfully ignorant, proudly vapid, feel-good-at-all-costs Pollyanna-ism."

That about covers it. Could be worse, I guess. How is Kenny Rogers feeling, these days?

(I've reproduced McLemee's comments in full--partly because his site doesn't have permanent links, and partly because I found his remarks so deliciously witty. One of these days I'll have to quit quoting McLemee so much, though!)

Remembrances of the dead can serve another useful purpose: reminding us of little-remembered facts about the deceased. Terry Teachout's blog, for instance, has linked to a past entry on Reagan that described him as "the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times." At Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer remarks on Reagan's role in defeating a 1978 anti-gay initiative on the California ballot. Posts like this can complicate our understanding of past figures, without attempting an overall assessment of their lives.

What bothers me most about the majority of obituaries and tributes is that they transform the recently living into figures bereft of liveliness and personality. Too many obituaries are lists of facts and anecdotes that never capture the personality or significance of the deceased; too many tributes try to capture a life's meaning and instead repeat a bunch of cliches and meaningless generalities. The occasional obituary is more successful, of course--and I think the British do a better job remembering the deadthan we do--but I look forward to the day when our newspapers pay as much attention to their obituaries as they do to their sports coverage.

Update: Christopher Hitchens has now published his own tribute to Reagan.

One could go on. I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn't like. Was it true that his staff in the 1980 debates had stolen President Carter's briefing book? (They had.) The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard. His reply was that maybe his staff had, and maybe they hadn't, but what about the leak of the Pentagon Papers? Thus, a secret theft of presidential documents was equated with the public disclosure of needful information. This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.

The fox, as has been pointed out by more than one philosopher, knows many small things, whereas the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ronald Reagan was neither a fox nor a hedgehog. He was as dumb as a stump. He could have had anyone in the world to dinner, any night of the week, but took most of his meals on a White House TV tray. He had no friends, only cronies. His children didn't like him all that much. He met his second wife—the one that you remember—because she needed to get off a Hollywood blacklist and he was the man to see. Year in and year out in Washington, I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.

I've never been a huge fan of Hitchens's political writing, but I think he could be a master necrologist--the type who'd make H.L. Mencken proud.

Posted by Ed at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2004

Sunday link laziness

Posted by Ed

Since I'm too lazy to write anything substantive at the moment, here are some links to browse:

  • In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews Gordon Wood's new book on the "americanization" of Benjamin Franklin (a "true-blue Englishman" who became an American icon.)
  • According to one critic, the three most influential books in Italian literature were Dante's Divine Comedy, Manzoni's The Betrothed, and... Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. Alison Lurie looks at Collodi's book in The New York Review.
  • In The New York Times Sunday Magazine, two writers (among them the University of Chicago's Steven Levitt) describe the case of an economist who decided to sell bagels in office parks and ended up creating the perfect laboratory to study white-collar crime.
  • Philip Pullman discusses the power of Prosper Merimee's Carmen in a new Guardian essay.
  • What's the relationship between science and art? Harvey Blume discusses two different answers to this question in the Boston Globe ideas section.
  • The Telegraph reviews two new books on Russian literature: Emma Gerstein's memoir of her dispute with the Mandelstams and Irma Kudrova's account of the death of Marina Tsvetaeva.
  • Question of the day: was Richard Nixon drunk during the Yom Kippur War? The Smoking Gun has published a relevant document on the web...
  • In another Telegraph article (found via Pullquote), Simon Sebag Montefiore describes Joseph Stalin's relationship with the Soviet movie industry: "Stalin loved movies, but he was much more than a movie-buff," Sebag Montefiore writes. "The new Communist Party archives in Moscow, and the recently opened personal papers of Stalin, reveal that he fancied himself a super-movie-producer/director/screenwriter as well as supreme censor, suggesting titles, ideas and stories, working on scripts and song lyrics, lecturing directors, coaching actors, ordering re-shoots and cuts and, finally, passing the movies for showing."
  • In The New Yorker, Joshua Wolf Shenk looks at Abraham Lincoln's "suicide poem," and Ian Buruma discusses the "two minds" of Bernard Lewis.
  • The New York Times describes the new soundtrack added to the first Harry Potter movie by a comicbook artist with a sense of humor. It sounds like a big improvement!
  • Penguin Books has commissioned a study showing that men seen reading books in public are more attractive to the opposite sex. The company is also launching a contest in which men can win a thousand pounds if they're caught reading a specially selected Penguin title. Isn't the world a wonderful place?
  • The Telegraph has begun excerpting a book about etymological myths. It's a fun read. (via Languagehat)

I'd especially recommend the article on Stalin if you want a fun read. It's full of fun gossipy details (though some rumors, like the claim that Stalin ordered the assassination of John Wayne, may well not be true): did you know that Stalin inherited the movie library of Joseph Goebbels after the war? The article isn't exactly brilliant scholarship (as others have noted), but details like this (and other yet to emerge from the archives) will make for a fascinating biography someday.

Later tonight or tomorrow I'll post my review of the new Harry Potter movie (short version: it's really good), but otherwise I think I'm done with blogging for the weekend.

Posted by Ed at 07:50 PM | Comments (0)

June 05, 2004

Remembering D-Day and World War II

Posted by Ed

Two new articles out this weekend discuss popular perceptions of World War II, and I'd recommend both of them. The first piece, a Slate article by David Greenberg, argues that "World War II nostalgia has gone too far" and that D-Day plays too large a role in our understanding of the conflict:

Obviously, the invasion of Normandy was a crucial event in American history, worthy of commemoration. But so are many of the events of World War II, and it's worth asking why V-E Day, for example, or V-J Day, or for that matter the death of Franklin Roosevelt doesn't serve as the focus of our national remembrance. Why does D-Day prompt Tom Brokaw to hustle into a helicopter and report to us for three nights from the skies above Omaha Beach?

An answer to these questions begins with the realization that the D-Day enthusiasm, like all rituals of memory, says more about the present than it does about the past. For one thing, unilateralism is ascendant today, and the popular D-Day storyline glorifies the U.S. role above all: tens of thousands of average American boys dramatically storming the beaches of Normandy to open a second front against the German army, their success speeding Hitler's demise.

But this version neglects, among other small details, the importance of the Allies. It especially shortchanges the Soviet Union—no doubt a vestige of Cold War attitudes. For three years, after all, the Germans focused their efforts on their all-important Eastern front, and most military historians agree that the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, not D-Day, was the real pivot point in the decline of Axis fortunes. (Meanwhile, the United States was pouring its energy into fighting Japan; as the critic Benjamin Schwarz has noted, the D-Day-centered narrative of World War II also unfairly slights the Pacific Theater.)

Besides overstating the centrality of the second front and neglecting the Allies' part, the current D-Day obsession also feeds off and perpetuates a romance with war and militarism. The tone of the recent coverage of D-Day (and World War II in general) has been surprisingly monochromatic, especially when compared to that of past eras. In the war's immediate aftermath, as the historian Gunter Bischof has noted, cultural and artistic treatments of the combat weren't all rosy. Novelists Norman Mailer, in The Naked and the Dead, and Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, showed that however noble the war's purpose, absurdities and moral conundrums abounded, and millions died needlessly. (Schwarz links to a 1946 Atlantic Monthly article that voiced similarly ambivalent feelings about the war.)

I'd recommend each of the articles that Greenberg links to, as well as this Cliopatria post by Tim Burke; I've touched on similar themes here, here, and here. I'm tempted to write more on the subject now, only I don't have a lot to add. One of the strengths of Greenberg's article, I thought, was that it provided a nice description of how Ronald Reagan helped shape popular memories of World War II--a fact I've never really considered before, even though I'm familiar with Reagan's speech on the anniversary of D-Day.

The second article is a New York Times "arts and ideas" piece about the reenactment of recent wars:

Civil War re-enactors are, of course, well known, having been famously portrayed as oddball history nuts in Tony Horwitz's book "Confederates in the Attic." But the re-enactment of battles from more recent wars like World War II and Vietnam, with some participants playing Nazis or Vietcong, has a different flavor. For real survivors, some whose memories are still raw, the safe historical distance collapses.

The events also raise troubling questions. Is this an acceptable representation of war or a parody? Many people would shudder at the thought of taking an M-16 and donning fatigues to go on a fake search-and-destroy mission to honor those who fought in Vietnam. And surely, joining a simulated German Panzer unit to roam the woods in a kübelwagen and shoot blanks is a far cry from more traditional ways of commemorating World War II.

I wished that the article had delved into some of these issues more deeply, but this is still a decent introduction to the issue for people who haven't, say, read Tony Horwitz's delightful book Confederates in the Attic.

Update: Kieran Healy has a Crooked Timber post looking at the number of New York Times stories since 1980 that mentioned D-Day.

Posted by Ed at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2004

Mendelsohn on Troy

Posted by Ed

Last month, when Wolfgang Petersen's disappointingly mediocre film epic Troy appeared in theaters, we were treated to a delightful spectacle: movie critics across the country did their best to pretend that they were experts in The Iliad, Homeric epic, and the mythology of the Trojan War. Call me cynical, but I expect that if you'd asked Roger Ebert about Ajax the Greater back in April, he'd have told you that it was a really good toilet-bowl cleaner; nonetheless, that didn't stop him from thundering that "Homer's estate should sue" the makers of the film for their desecration of a classic when he reviewed the movie in May.

It can be nice, then, to read a review of the movie by a critic who actually knows something about the ancient world. The current issue of The New York Review of Books features a late but entertaining review of Troy by Daniel Mendelsohn, a former lecturer in classics at Princeton; in his article, Mendelsohn does a nice job of mocking the movie's inanities without pedantically bashing anyone who'd dare depart from the classics in a movie about the Trojan War. Over the course of his review, Mendelsohn criticizes the mischaracterization of Homer by critics who liked the movie, provides a compelling argument about how the updating of the story destroyed the sense behind the action, and injects a tone of humor into the debate on the movie.

Consider this excerpt, in which Mendelsohn discusses Petersen's bizarre decision to transform Patroclus from Achilles's lover into his "cousin":

Watching Troy, you'd think that there was no higher value for the Bronze Age Greeks than cousinage. "He killed my cousin!" Achilles shrieks at Priam when the latter comes begging for his son's body at the end of the story. "You've lost your cousin, now you've taken mine," a mournful Briseis (in this version, Hector's cousin) tells Achilles. "When does it end?" This film's notion that entire civilizations were destroyed because of excessive attachment to one's collateral relations is, surely, a first in world myth-making.

Moreover, Mendelsohn uses this problem as evidence for a compelling critique of the movie. "The real problem with Petersen and Benioff's reductive ideological updating of the epic story they tell is organic, not pedantic," he writes: "the 'realism' they've opted for goes against the grain of the genre they're working in." In his view, the movie "blindly follows much of the epic cycle's plot while providing none of the epic motivations" and transforms its characters into psychologically hollow and ahistorical figures:

Similarly flimsy as motivations for the characters' actions are the incessant references to a bona fide Homeric value: the glory heroes derive from being celebrated in song through the ages. And yet here again, the gritty twenty-first-century realism favored by Troy's makers makes nonsense of a genuinely Bronze Age element they have nonetheless retained. For the endless references to immortality through future fame ("men will write stories about you for thousands of years to come," one character says, blissfully innocent of the fact that there is no writing yet) are undercut both by the pervasive cynicism and by the grim modern character of the milieu Benioff works so hard to establish. There's no reason to believe that men as disillusioned and irreligious as those we keep seeing here would ever believe in anything so fuzzy as "immortality" in the first place. Anyway, if the Trojan War was really no more than a territorial affair —"about power, not about love"—what about it, precisely, is worth celebrating at such great length in all those epics—epics which clearly include this movie itself?

I don't know that I agreed with all of Mendelsohn's conclusions about the movie, but it was refreshing to read a review by someone who knew what he was talking about. Those of us who know little about The Iliad may still have some intelligent things to say, I hope, but there's no substitute for the real thing.

Update: Edward Rothstein of The New York Times has published a short piece on whether Troy is the first movie of the second Iraq war. The piece isn't great, but it has some okay moments.

Posted by Ed at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2004

English Etiquette and Japanese Tea

Posted by Ed

This week's Guardian education supplement features an intriguing little article on an unusual topic: a West London finishing school that offers courses in English manners for students from Japan. The most popular courses, it seems, discuss how the English drink their afternoon tea; a majority of the students are wives of Japanese businessmen who work in London, though some pupils fly to London from Tokyo just to take the class.

Here's the most interesting passage from the article:

There is something deeply incongruous about a Japanese woman teaching Japanese students old-fashioned English traditions and it is hard to work out whether they believe what they are learning is useful or merely interesting. One student tells me she wants to learn how to serve tea to her English teacher, another how to use the Royal Doulton tea set she had collected at home.

Cherry says her interest stems from a fascination with the elegance of a bygone age. "Afternoon tea is about quality of life," she says. "Japanese people always want to do things quicker, make more money. There is no concentration on ceremony. Now, by learning about afternoon tea, we make the event the purpose of the act."

Traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, she says, are now rarely practised in Japan. But it is through a reference to western films that Cherry reveals one of the central, and for us, perhaps most shameful, motivations behind her school.

"In some films, like Lost in Translation, Japanese people are seen as a joke," Cherry smiles. "That's fine, we can laugh at ourselves, but I can teach people how not to be a joke when they come here."

Hailing from a country where there is no word for "sarcasm" and where conformity is something of a cultural tenet, it is unsurprising that there is a market for Cherry's own particular brand of British conventionality.

I found this passage fascinating on a lot of different levels:

  • The movie Lost in Translation won near-universal acclaim from American critics, but I, for one, found the movie's attitude toward the Japanese kind of off-putting. (That's one of the many reasons I thought that Lost in Translation was the most over-rated movie of 2003.) This article is one of the only Western news stories I've seen that make this (remarkably obvious) point, and it's interesting to see how the movie was perceived abroad.
  • When you think of traditions associated with tea, Japan--and not England--is usually the first country that leaps to mind. Is the article correct that the traditional tea ceremony is rarely practiced in Japan? Do the women who study English tea traditions remember the Japanese team ceremony? It would have been nice if the article had pursued these questions.
  • Is it true that Japanese has no word for "sarcasm"? I'm a little skeptical: this statement reminds me of Ronald Reagan's famously erroneous claim that Russian has no word for "freedom." (One rather unreliable site--Altavista's Babel Fish--does give a Japanese translation of the word.) Even if Japanese has no one word precisely identical to "sarcasm" in its meaning and connotations, is there really no roughly analogous concept in Japan? Finally, what does sarcasm have to do with conformity and conventionality? The connections seem rather tenuous to me...

I found the idea behind this article quite interesting, but I wished that its author had been willing to investigate the cultural context of tea in both England and Japan, and hadn't merely done a little straightforward reporting, tossed around a couple of stereotypes, and called it a day.

Posted by Ed at 08:10 PM | Comments (4)

History Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm afraid that I'm really busy today with grading and writing, so unless inspiration unexpectedly strikes, I won't have anything original to contribute to this blog. Here are some nice history links, though:

  • What does the biographer William Manchester have in common with Robert Ludlum and V.C. Andrews? He's expected to continue publishing from beyond the grave, it seems!
  • How big a role did Abraham Lincoln play in the passage of the 13th Amendment? How did he shape the president's role as commander-in-chief? James McPherson discusses questions like these in his Nation review of several new books on Lincoln.
  • Thought for the day: instead of being an all-American hero, Benjamin Franklin was "the least American and the most European of the nation's early leaders." That's the argument of a new book by Gordon Wood that's reviewed in Newsday.
  • After giving us his own take on the passion, Mel Gibson has decided to produce a movie about a little-known historical personage: the ancient British queen Boudicca, who led a rebellion against the Romans in A.D. 60. (Not surprisingly, the movie will prominently feature blood, revenge, and lots of floggings.) (via HNN)

The Boudicca article includes a lot of fun details: I didn't know that Elizabeth I played a key role in the creation of the Boudicca legend, for example. Oddly enough, it seems that there are scripts floating around for four movies about everyone's favorite leader of the Iceni... I hope at least one of them is better than Troy!

Posted by Ed at 01:05 PM | Comments (2)

June 02, 2004

The Eastern European Food Revolution

Posted by Ed

Over at Crescat Sententia, Will Baude links to a Tyler Cowen post commenting on the high quality of Polish cuisine. He notes that "Things have definitely changed since I was there about ten years ago. I do hope Cowen has steered clear of Polish pizza though, which probably hasn't changed, and probably still involves both ketchup and wonderbread. And no, I kid you not."

Will's post reminded me of a Chicago Tribune article I'd planned to discuss over the weekend:

Fifteen years after shaking off communism, Eastern Europe is engulfed in a food revolution, with people no longer content to shovel down only meat, boiled potatoes and stick-to-your-ribs dumplings.

From Bratislava to Budapest, eating habits and tastes are radically changing. It's a stark shift from 15 years ago, when classic spaghetti in Slovakia meant ketchup and shredded cheese atop overcooked noodles.


Under communism, vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus were virtually unknown. Today, nearly everything is available, and in quantities that would have been inconceivable during communism.

No more waiting in line to get the basics, or fresh pineapple or mandarin oranges for a special Christmas treat. These and other fruits can be bought year-round.

Tastes are fuller and more refined. Ethnic eateries have helped convince people that mixing meat with fruit isn't a crazy idea. Italian restaurants have shown that pizza shouldn't be a thick yeast cake topped with vegetables and ketchup.

Some things do change, it seems! Today's Washington Post, meanwhile, profiles Arkadii Novikov, "a Soviet cooking school graduate rejected for a job at Moscow's first McDonald's" who has become the food guru of Russia's oligarchs and the undisputed restaurant king of the new Moscow.

I'm fortunate in that all of my Russian travels took place after the fall of Communism; I ate the worst pizza I've ever tasted in Moscow's Sheremetevo airport, but at least it didn't have ketchup on it!

(There are moments, by the way, in which I think it would be fun to be a culinary historian: it's not the biggest historical sub-discipline, of course, but there has been some recent work in the field. If I'd wanted to make culinary history my main scholarly interest, however, I could have picked a country of study whose cuisine is tastier than Russia's!)

Posted by Ed at 04:18 PM | Comments (2)

Diversions of the Day

Posted by Ed

I'm feeling too lazy to write anything substantive right now (well, on my blog, anyway), so here are some links:

  • A Canadian academic is seeking the music that accompanied Shakespeare's plays. (via ArtsJournal)
  • Who defeated the Spanish Armada: Sir Francis Drake, or the Turks?
  • The Telegraph reviews The Italian Boy, Sarah Wise's account of the wonderful world of corpse-snatching.
  • Scott McLemee reports on Michel Thaler's Le Train de Nulle Part (or The Train from Nowhere), a novel without verbs; his article was inspired by this piece from The Sydney Morning Herald.
  • In New York Magazine, Clive Thompson describes a neat little art forgery scheme.
  • The Boston Globe ideas section looks at the revival of Raphael Patai's 1973 book The Arab Mind in intelligence circles.
  • A recent "improbable research" column in The Guardian looks at the Habsburg lip and other genetic deformities, discussing a topic that Susan wrote about back in February. (via the Improbable Research blog)
  • What's the legacy of Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel-winning author of The Quiet Don? The Moscow Times investigates.
  • Thought for the day: "I prefer Kerry's flaw to Gore's. Gore oversimplified things. Kerry overcomplicates them. The latter may be cowardly, but I don't think it's dishonest." From a discussion of political ads between Slate's Jacob Weisberg and Will Saletan.


Posted by Ed at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2004

What George Lucas Could Learn from Peter Jackson

Posted by Ed

One of these days, when I have just a little more time, I plan to write an enormous blog entry detailing my assessment of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I've already spent some time working on it, in fact: I bought the DVD of The Return of the King last Wednesday, and I've spent a handful of my spare moments since then watching the movie and jotting down my thoughts.

If there's one thing that regular readers of this blog know, however, it's that I'm a Tolkien addict--and that sometimes my thoughts on movies expand far beyond my audience's willingness to read them. I've decided, therefore, to begin my musings on Jackson's Lord of the Rings with a short initial entry, in which I'll discuss the lessons that George Lucas should take from Jackson's work. For now this entry will be a preview of the full review I'm working on, and when my main commentary is done, this post will be a sidebar to my primary argument.

As most of you probably know, I'm a huge fan of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy--even though I think that he sometimes moves too far away from both the text and the spirit of the books . I'm willing to accept the movies as Peter Jackson's look at Middle Earth, however, since I love the way he brought Tolkien's books to life. In Jackson's hands, the movie is more than a fantasy film or a summer special-effects blockbuster: as my main review will argue, it also combines elements of the sweeping David Lean-style epic, the realistic war movie, the schlocky horror film, the tension-driven thriller, and the classic Hollywood swashbuckler.

Where does the swashbuckling come in? Consider these scenes from The Two Towers and The Return of the King:

  • During the battle of Helm's Deep, as Saruman's Uruk-Hai attempt to break down the main gate to the keep, Theoden turns to Aragorn for help. Aragorn and Gimli then leave the keep through a hidden side door, leap to the main causeway, and singlehandedly fight off dozens of orcs, before grabbing a rope and being whisked off to safety. (Dramatic music plays throughout.) The characters' speech is both heroic and humorous (Gimli even repeats an atrocious dwarf-tossing joke), and their actions have a physical swagger that doesn't appear very often in the movies these days.
  • Soon after the armies of Rohan attack the forces of Mordor on the Pelennor Fields, the action shifts to the river and we witness the arrival of the black corsairs' ships. An orc captain recognizes the ships as belonging to Mordor's allies and whines that they've arrived too late, only to see Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas leap to shore and stride nonchalantly toward a legion of orcs. Gimli mutters an arrogant joke about how many orcs he'll kill, and then the army of the dead sweeps past to join the battle. (Again, the mood is set by dramatic music.)
  • Soon afterward, Legolas singlehandedly kills an oliphaunt and all the Haradrim on its back--slaughtering at least 15 soldiers in just a few minutes; he does so, moreover, with a zen-like nonchalance.

Jackson, it seems, loves to switch between film styles. Some of his battle scenes are starkly realistic: I doubt that any mainstream film-maker would have portrayed the fight with the cave troll in Moria in such an unheroic light before Steven Spielberg brought us Saving Private Ryan, for instance. (There's no dramatic music, and the fighting comes across as both confusing and real.) But other Jackson fight scenes come across as swashbuckling entertainment: at times Viggo Mortensen seems more like Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks than like a contemporary action hero, as he nonchalantly leaps into the fray with heroic music blaring in the background. I'd even argue that each of the scenes I've mentioned above would fit more comfortably into a good, old-fashioned pirate movie than into most anything Hollywood produced in the 1990s.

You can argue over whether Jackson's swashbuckling is effective: I thought that Legolas's attack on the oliphaunt was a little over-the-top, for instance, and it's debatable whether swashbuckling belongs in the midst of a realistic battle scene. What seems undeniable is that Jackson has achieved exactly the sort of effect that George Lucas is most interested in--and he's done so in the middle of a movie that's far more serious, complex, and multi-faceted than anything Lucas has attempted. If you're not convinced, ask yourself this question: Who's the ideal audience for the second scene I mentioned above? I'd argue that the ideal viewer for this sequence is a nine-year old boy, and that such a viewer would experience exactly the reaction Jackson wanted: first he'd gasp when he thought that a bunch of mercenaries had arrived to help the forces of Mordor, and then he'd heave a massive sigh of relief as Aragorn and company rushed in to help the good guys.

What lesson should George Lucas take from all this? One of my biggest problems with the two Star Wars prequels is that Lucas has almost completely lost his sense of fun; in my more frivolous moments, I've even argued that the most serious flaw in the new Star Wars movies is that almost no one repeats the line "may the force be with you," and when they do, it comes across as a serious mantra rather than a quirky-sounding admonition. In Episode I, Lucas aimed too low, giving his movie an annoyingly juvenile feel. (Witness Jar-Jar Binks and the incompetent Gungans!) In Episode II, far too much of the story was filled with boring talk about politics or with self-important efforts to build up the back-story, and Lucas was more interested in giving his fight scenes a look that would appeal to sci-fi nerds than he was in making the story fun and exciting for nine-year-olds. Lucas says that his goal is to produce the sort of exciting movies that he loved to watch on Saturday afternoons as a kid, but the only scene in the prequels that met this goal was Yoda's fight scene in Attack of the Clones.

This contrast between The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels, I believe, strongly favors Jackson: Jackson injects moments of swashbuckling fun into a movie series that's usually far more realistic and serious, while Lucas casts a dull pallor over a series that's supposed to be light-hearted fun. If only that were the primary flaw in Lucas's work...

There's a second area where I believe that Lucas could learn a lot from Jackson, however, and that area is the use of detail.

In 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released in theaters for the first time, Roger Ebert wrote a delightfully wrong-headed review of the movie. Here's how he began:

Here is just one small moment in Return of the Jedi, a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.

It is that extra level of detail that makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas. Other movies might approach the special effects. Other action pictures might approximate the sense of swashbuckling adventure. But in Return of the Jedi, as in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, there's such a wonderful density to the canvas. Things are happening all over. They're pouring forth from imaginations so fertile that, yes, we do halfway believe in this crazy Galactic Empire long ago and far, far away.

I don't want to suggest that Ebert is completely wrong, of course: Lucas's attention to detail is one of the many factors that helped make the original Star Wars trilogy such a delight. What's more, I love the scene where the rancor's keeper bursts into tears, and I loved it even more when I first saw the movie. (I was six at the time.)

I think Ebert makes a big mistake at the start of his second paragraph, however: is it really true that an "extra level of detail" is what "makes the Star Wars pictures much more than just space operas"? Looking back now, two years after the fifth installment in the series, I think it's fair to say that all the Star Wars movies show an amazing attention to detail. The prequels, however, just don't work particularly well as movies: it's hard to care about the characters, and the basic storyline isn't terribly interesting. Sometimes it seems like Lucas took Ebert's words to heart and decided that if he kept piling lay upon layer of detail into his most recent films, critics and audiences would love them just as much as they loved the originals. Lucas, of course, was wrong.

The key issue, I think, is this: if a movie's audience cares about the characters and the plot, then fun or intriguing details can increase those feelings and make viewers love the movie even more. But if no one cares about what's happening on screen, then an added level of attention and detail won't make a shred of difference.

Jackson, I think, understands this. (His movies' sense of conviction is their strongest point: you really get the sense that Jackson believes in Tolkien's world, and that the characters have a real stake in what's happening. This helps make the audience care, too.) Consider these three scenes from his trilogy:

  • Near the end of The Two Towers, as Sam delivers an inspirational speech to raise Frodo's spirits after his encounter with the Nazgul, Jackson's cameras briefly turn away from the hobbits and the fighting in Osgiliath; they turn, instead, to Gollum, whose face betrays a mournful expression.
  • Near the beginning of The Return of the King, we see a sweeping shot of the inside of the golden hall of Edoras during the victory celebration following Helm's Deep. In the midst of the celebration, we see Merry and Pippin dancing on a table, singing a song about their beloved Green Dragon tavern at home; at one point, one of Merry's enormous feet crashes into one of the Rohirrim who's watching and cheering them on.
  • Near the start of the siege of Gondor, the defenders of Minas Tirith send a boulder catapulting toward the armies of Mordor. It's headed directly toward the leader of the orcs (a figure memorably described by The New Yorker's Anthony Lane as an enormous potato), who leaps out of the way just in time and then spits on the rock with disgust. Just before the orc spits, Jackson turns to a nearby troll and gives us a quick (and charming) view of its surprised reaction.

All of these details add to Jackson's work, but I think that the differences between them are striking. Gollum's reaction to Sam's speech is a great supporting detail; it adds to the speech's emotional heft and tells us something about Gollum's character. The second detail--the one having to do with the dancing hobbits' feet--was also a nice addition to the film, but it was so subtle that I missed it on my first viewing. (I noticed and enjoyed the dancing hobbits, of course--I even think the trilogy would have benefited from more hobbit songs--but I didn't notice just how footloose Merry really was until this weekend.) The final detail (the surprised troll) was the least significant of the three.

What's most crucial about the first two details, however, is that they're supporting details. Gollum's reaction adds to the emotion surrounding Sam's speech--but if you don't like the speech to begin with, Gollum's sad and thoughtful demeanor won't add anything to the film. The unfortunate collision of Merry's feet and an innocent warrior from Rohan, moreover, adds to the jolly atmosphere of the dance. In a sense, it was a detail added to a detail, making the Rohirrim's celebration of their victory more personal and more cinematically effective. The hobbits' dancing would have been a nice touch even without Merry's carelessness, and the victory celebration would have been a good scene even if Merry and Pippin hadn't been there.

In other words, clever or charming details can add a lot to a scene when they add to the mood or help develop a character--but, in and of themselves, they can only do so much. I'm not sure that George Lucas understands this. I think it's great that the first Star Wars prequel featured Wookiees in the Senate, for example, but the scene in which they appeared was still boring, bland, and stilted; the presence of the Wookiees could have been the crowning touch on a more entertaining film sequence, but instead they were lost in the midst of an eminently forgettable Senate debate. Similarly, it was fantastic to see womp rats on Tatooine in Attack of the Clones, but the Tatooine scenes in that movie weren't terribly effective: I get the sense that Lucas wrote those scenes because they were needed for the movie's plot, not because he had something interesting or important to say.

At the same time, a director can get some of the details spectactularly wrong, but if he still understands the big picture, that can be enough to save his work. Once again, Peter Jackson is a case in point. Of all the decisions he made in his trilogy, by far the biggest mistake was the way that he transformed Faramir from a wise and far-seeing Numenorean--the most sympathetic character in the trilogy--into an underwhelming Boromir Lite. This "detail," in fact, is a major plot point, but however much I hate the way Jackson treated Faramir, there were so many fantastic scenes in The Two Towers that I was willing to forgive Jackson his few transgressions.

Turning back to Return of the Jedi, the rancor keeper's tears wouldn't matter to us at all if we didn't care about what was happening: the movie is full of familiar and likeable characters whose fate matters to the audience, and that's why the movie is worth seeing. (In this sense, it's like the surprised troll in Return of the King.) From a technical standpoint, I can't even say that Return of the Jedi is any better than Attack of the Clones, but when the first movie is bad, it's bad in an entertainingly stupid way--and when the second movie is bad, it's just boring. Questions like this make a world of difference.

I could go on, of course: I'd also argue that Jackson's work features a sense of conviction and a sense of wonder that appeared in the first Star Wars movies but were completely lacking in the prequels. I don't want to pick on George Lucas too much, though--and if you want to read more of my thoughts on Peter Jackson, then you'll just have to wait.

Posted by Ed at 11:15 PM | Comments (1)

Analyzing The New Yorker

Posted by Ed

Today's New York Times features a fun article on a recent senior thesis by a Princeton engineering student who mathematically analyzed the fiction published in The New Yorker:

Ms. Milkman, who has a minor in American studies, read 442 stories printed in The New Yorker from Oct. 5, 1992, to Sept. 17, 2001, and built a substantial database. She then constructed a series of rococo mathematical tests to discern, among other things, whether certain fiction editors at the magazine had a specific impact on the type of fiction that was published, the sex of authors and the race of characters. The study was long on statistics and short on epiphanies: one main conclusion was that male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.

The study's confirmation of the obvious left some wondering why Ms. Milkman, who graduates this morning from Princeton with high honors, went about constructing such an intricate wristwatch in order to tell the time, but others admire her pluck and willingness to cross disciplines in a way that wraps the left and right brain neatly into one project. Her adviser on the project, Prof. René Carmona, was thrilled by the concept and amazed by the resulting thesis.

Here are some of the student's more substantive findings:

In analyzing such matters, Ms. Milkman has brought statistical rigor to one of the more intense parlor games in the literary world. Critics have long suggested that under Mr. Buford — who took over the magazine's fiction department in 1995 when Mr. McGrath came to The New York Times, and left to write books in 2002 — female authors were about as welcome as they would be at the clubhouse of Augusta National.

According to Ms. Milkman, the number of male authors rose to 70 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 57 percent under Mr. McGrath. She also found that Mr. Buford was much more likely to publish stories set in the New York area: the number of stories set in the mid-Atlantic region rose to 37 percent under Mr. Buford, compared with 19 percent under Mr. McGrath. The study also found that the first-person voice rose mightily under Mr. Buford, which may reflect the growth of memoir in the 90's more than anything else.

Under both editors the fiction in the magazine took as its major preoccupations sex, relationships, death, family and travel. Mr. Buford was relatively more interested in sex, a topic in 47 percent of the stories he published as opposed to 35 percent under Mr. McGrath. Mr. McGrath's authors tended to deal with one of the occasional consequences of that act, children, more frequently than Mr. Buford's writers: 36 percent under Mr. McGrath, 26 percent under Mr. Buford. (History, homosexuality and politics all tied for the attentions of Mr. Buford at a lowly 4 percent.)

The article is entertaining, but I'm not convinced that the thesis itself is interesting or significant. For that matter, the article's author (David Carr) also seems to have had his doubts: at one point, he writes "In a conclusion that will probably cause few readers to spill their evening tea, she states that 'quantitative analyses revealed that New Yorker characters are not representative of Americans or New York State residents in terms of their race.' " Almost makes you wonder why Carr wrote the article... Carr alludes to the research of Franco Moretti, a Stanford professor known for his fascinating text-free literary studies, but that's a subject for another day.

The more I think about it, the less I'm sure what to make of this article. On the one hand, I'm delighted to see that The New York Times has written a humorous article about academia: America's paper of record would benefit from a couple more good laughs, and I'm always glad when it delves into a (supposedly) intellectual subject. There's a part of me, however, that would have liked to see the paper pay more attention to the thesis's ideas. But would it really be appropriate for the Times to rip an undergrad thesis to shreds? (For that matter, is it fair for a major national newspaper to subject a young student's ideas to a really rigorous public examination, even if those ideas turn out to be sort of okay?) I guess I'm glad that the Times published this article, since it was kind of fun and kind of interesting. But a different sort of publication might have been better suited to giving this story the kind of attention it deserves.

Posted by Ed at 10:59 AM | Comments (0)