December 30, 2004

A Very Long Engagement

Posted by Matt

Today I saw Jean-Pierre Jeunet's newest film, A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles), based on a book by Sebastien Japrisot (which I know nothing about). It stars Audrey Tautou as Mathilde, a young woman whose fiancé (Manech, played by Gaspard Ulliel) has not returned from World War I. She decides to find out what has happened to him. We learn at the beginning of the film that he is one of five soldiers whose punishment for injuring themselves to try to get sent home is to be cast into a no-man's-land between French and German lines at the Somme. The story unfolds mostly through the letters and firsthand accounts she receives from those who were there, or those close to them.

David Edelstein's Slate review calls the film "Amélie Goes to War," and that's not a bad assessment, as it has a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses. A lot of the film's appeal comes from brief asides on various interesting characters. The film is also visually striking, with lots of beautiful views of the French countryside, contrasting with the grey grimness of the war scenes. I'm not sure how I feel about the treatment of the war in the movie: it's certainly grim, but it somehow doesn't seem very serious. There's some nice satire, and the absurdity of the war and the decisions of the military commanders is striking, but the battlefield scenes themselves don't seem to carry the weight that they should. That's part of a larger criticism: it was hard to really sympathize with Mathilde's quest, as she seemed too detached. There was a weird contrast between the obsessiveness of her search, and the lack of emotional display. Maybe this is a weakness of the actress, Tautou, whose primary tool in Amélie seemed to be a sort of knowing smile exchanged with the camera. Here that smile is out of place, and we get some unconvincing, vaguely sad facial expressions instead.

Still, it was an enjoyable movie, largely because of the varied and interesting minor characters, most of whom were played more compellingly than Mathilde herself. It's really in the little details that this movie was most satisfying: the flight of an albatross and the trio of "M"s Manech likes to carve, or the mailman who likes to scatter gravel when he brings his bicycle to a stop in front of Mathilde's home, are a couple of the motifs that nicely bind the film together. I just couldn't help feeling that this could have been a much better film if only Mathilde's emotions were shown to us more; the source of her motivation in her long, hopeless search was not clear. I'm not sure how much to attribute this failure to Jeunet and how much to Tautou, but my impression was that it was mostly a fault of Tautou's detachment.

Posted by Matt at 02:00 AM | Comments (11)

December 27, 2004

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Some quick links:

  • The Weekly Standard discusses mystery novels that deal with historic events.
  • In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews a new Jared Diamond book about how some societies destroy themselves.
  • The Boston Globe ideas section describes the relationship between A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse.
  • In The Times Literary Supplement, Lindsey Hughes reviews a new collection of the correspondence between Grigory Potemkin and "that fornicatress," Catherine the Great.
  • A New Republic article criticizes the growing liberal nostalgia for George H.W. Bush.
  • Does Iraq in 2004 look like Vietnam in 1966? Phillip Carter asks this question in Slate.

One more for Tuesday:

  • Gregg Easterbrook discusses the filming of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Easterbrook's article is quite underwhelming in most respects. His plot summary, for instance, is rather unconvincing and strongly suggests that he hasn't read the books recently, if at all. They also betray a rather unintelligent political slant--suggesting, for instance, that schoolteachers helped make the books popular in part because of Pullman's anti-religious stance. (In my experience, the series was popular long before it was clear just how unambiguously anti-religion they were going to be.) Still, the article includes a detail I hadn't learned about yet: since I last wrote about this subject, the movies' director--who said that all references to religion would be dropped from the film trilogy--has resigned.

Posted by Ed at 01:31 PM | Comments (5)

December 26, 2004

Quick Frivolous Question

Posted by Susan

A question for Ed's legions of devoted readers: who or what is the "Dobb" in a Dobb kit (men's toiletry organizer)? The question came up at a family gathering and I have so far been unable to answer it.

Posted by Susan at 06:10 PM | Comments (10)

December 24, 2004

Happy Holidays

Posted by Ed

I probably won't write any posts for several more days, so until I do, season's greetings to you all, Merry Christmas to those of you who are Christian, and Happy Holidays to Bill O'Reilly!

Posted by Ed at 06:30 PM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2004

Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Links of the day:

  • A neat Legal Affairs article discusses a fierce debate on what econometric models tell us about the relationship between legal history and economic growth. (The article is more interesting than I make it sound...)
  • Slate looks at efforts to market The Polar Express as an evangelical movie.
  • The New York Times describes the rise of "Denglish"--a mishmash of Deutsch and English--in German advertising.
  • The Federalists, the Whigs, and the Republicans of the 1930s all failed when they became too closely associated with New England, Michael Lind argues in The American Prospect. Are today's Democrats falling into the same trap?
  • In The Boston Review, Benjamin Paloff discusses the legacy of the writer Bruno Schulz and Poland's Jewish past.
  • Why are there so many books about the state of the English language these days? Richard Jenkyns asks this question in Prospect.
  • According to The Guardian, the Iraqi National Library has begun to rise from the ashes.

Some more links for Thursday:

  • Daniel Mendelsohn reviews Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great movie in The New York Review of Books.
  • In The American Prospect, David Greenberg reviews several new books on liberalism.
  • Masha Gessen asks why Russians are afraid of an economic collapse in The New Republic.
  • Was Lucrezia Borgia as bad as you've heard?
  • In The Moscow Times, Lewis Siegelbaum reviews a new book on Stalin.

Posted by Ed at 08:15 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2004

Was Gollum Schizoid?

Posted by Ed

The latest British Medical Journal features an article , written by a group of medical students, that discusses the mental health of everyone's favorite disturbed ring-bearer, Gollum. (Here's a report from Reuters.) Its conclusion:

Gollum displays pervasive maladaptive behaviour that has been present since childhood with a persistent disease course. His odd interests and spiteful behaviour have led to difficulty in forming friendships and have caused distress to others. He fulfils seven of the nine criteria for schizoid personality disorder (ICD F60.1), and, if we must label Gollum's problems, we believe that this is the most likely diagnosis.

Gollum, the article concludes, was not schizophrenic and did not suffer from multiple personality disorder. Personally, though, I was more amused when I first read this December 2000 article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, discussing the pathologies of Winnie-the-Pooh characters:

Our neurodevelopmental group agrees about poor Owl: obviously bright, but dyslexic. His poignant attempts to cover up for his phonological deficits are similar to what we see day in and day out in others so afflicted. If only his condition had been identified early and he received more intensive support!

But see this rival diagnosis, suggesting that Winnie the Pooh suffers from Prader-Willie syndrome:

Winnie the Pooh clearly suffers from Prader-Willie (not Winnie)syndrome: mental retardation manifested by his concrete and simplistic vocabulary, "I am a bear of no brain", compulsive overeating and insatiability, physical anomalies (typical Prader-Willie facies, small hands and feet, very small chin and hypogonadism: no pants but nothing detectable), overall cheerful mood (except with food related frustrations). Empirical evidence: all medical students and residents rotating through my service receive the task of diagnosing Pooh (only clue given is the fact that it is not a disorder in DSM): over 80% get the diagnosis in less than two weeks and bring in pictures of Prader-Willie patients.

I'm sure that someone more knowledgeable than I am could write some profound commentary on these articles, but I have nothing insightful (or amusing) to add.

Posted by Ed at 04:12 PM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2004

Idle thoughts

Posted by Matt

Time for one of those occasional posts by people who are not Ed:

My semester is over, and I'm in Louisville for a while (also planning to go to Chicago in the next few weeks). I still have work I want to try to finish, but I've been taking a bit of a break from thinking about physics.

I've been mulling over what I could write about a couple of things I've read or seen lately, and it occurs to me that my inclination seems to be to start from what I expected of the work in question, and describe what surprised me. But this could perhaps give a false impression of what I really think; my inclination of things I like, but less than expected, is to write what sound like negative reviews. But enough of the meta-writing.

Recently I read E. M. Forster's novel Howards End. Some time ago I read A Room with a View and enjoyed it. And I had read one passage from this novel before, in a music course: Forster describes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as heard by the character Helen Schlegel. Here's the scherzo: the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.

Forster makes nice observations about the way people listen to music -- a little essay on the subject is included in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel. And generally this is where his writing is strong: he's sensitive to how people think and feel about things. Or is he? Maybe he's only sensitive to how his sort of people think and feel about things. And this is where the novel surprised me: in some ways it seems incredibly shallow. The Schlegels are the sort of people Forster likes: cultured, intelligent, sensitive, sympathetic. The Wilcoxes are the sort of people he doesn't like: all business, concerned with progress and wealth but not with art and culture, insensitive, rigid. Forster writes the Schlegels in a way that really makes them come alive. Helen and Margaret are people I would like to know, people I would like. But what of the Wilcoxes? It's not really that he doesn't develop their characters much, but by comparison they are flat. And I can't argue that such people don't exist. But the Schlegel/Wilcox dichotomy really overstates what happens in society. People don't tend to divide neatly into these groups. There's some of the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes in most of us. The character of Leonard Bast also fails to really come alive. Forster makes use of him as a device to illustrate the difference in social strata, but ultimately doesn't seem to have any more regard for him than Mr. Wilcox does.

I can't say Howards End is not a good novel: it's quite good, and I enjoyed it. But it is overly simplistic in some ways, and this took me by surprise. So, for all its "goblin footfalls," and the interesting way Mrs. Wilcox (the first, that is) and Miss Avery (and the house Howards End itself) glue the story together, and the charm of the Schlegel sisters, there's still something a little disappointing about the book. Its epigraph, the injunction to "only connect" that runs through the book, seems a little silly, in the end. But here's the problem I mentioned above: I really do think this is a very good novel, and I don't want to discourage you from reading it. It was good without living up to my expectations.

Now, to further exemplify what I mean about how my reviewing is influenced by my expectations: today among the hundreds of cable channels available to me here I stumbled upon Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I had heard a lot about it when it came out a few years ago, but I had never bothered to see it. I think I heard mostly good things about the film, but still the way it was praised led me to expect very little from it. I had the impression, from the glowing reviews I heard from some people, that it was winning people over with empty charm, a cute actress (Audrey Tautou), and a saccharine story. All of which are true, at least to some extent. But nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised, in the end. There were a lot of pleasing little details, and the movie was visually appealing. The story was more fun than I was expecting, and the movie was unpretentious.

Well, there you have it -- disappointed by Howards End, pleasantly surprised by Amélie. But guess which one I liked more? Probably the former, although not by orders of magnitude. (Hard to compare books to movies anyway.) Anyway, you see why I seem to have trouble with reviews that accurately convey how I feel about things.

Well, my internet connection here is getting incredibly sluggish (at 3:30 AM? I can't imagine why, but even google is taking forever to load), so I had better post now.

P.S. Any thoughts on the best album of 2004? I'm actually inclined to say Destroyer's Your Blues, despite thinking for a while that it wasn't nearly as good as their previous two albums. It's grown on me, and I can't say I'm too excited by any other album this year. The Interpol album is OK, but I can't work up any enthusiasm for it. As I've noted, the new Clinic album is also not to great.

Posted by Matt at 02:40 AM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2004

The Whitewashing of Earthsea

Posted by Ed

When I was in the fifth grade, I enjoyed reading Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. I was kind of intrigued to see that the SciFi network was airing a new miniseries based on Le Guin's book earlier this week, but what little I saw of the show seemed really bad.

Now Le Guin has written a Slate article on "how the SciFi Channel wrecked my books." Le Guin focuses on how the book's adapters whitewashed the story, changing a racially diverse cast of characters into a mostly white ensemble, and transformed her book into a "generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence."

2004, then, has brought us Legend of Earthsea and a mediocre Wrinkle in Time adaptation. Which beloved children's classics will be turned into mediocre TV specials in 2005?

Posted by Ed at 12:54 PM | Comments (2)

December 15, 2004

Blogging Break

Posted by Ed

In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm taking a brief break from blogging. (I leave for Russia next month, and I'll be insanely busy until I go.) I'll probably post a couple entries before I leave, but I expect my blogging to be pretty infrequent until early-to-mid January.

Posted by Ed at 09:02 PM | Comments (1)

December 10, 2004

Ayn Rand is Crying

Posted by Susan

Quick and frivolous:

1. Google the following words: chicago silliness. Don't use quotes.
2. Note the first result of this search.
3. Laugh.

(via Gapers Block.

Posted by Susan at 07:02 PM | Comments (2)

December 08, 2004

Pullman on Film

Posted by Ed

At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell links to a London Times article about the upcoming film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: the director, Chris Weitz, apparently plans to remove all references to God and the church from Pullman's anti-religion series. (There's a lot of fun fun stuff in both the post and the comments.) This Independent article , meanwhile, suggests that Tom Stoppard has been "dumped" as the movie's screenwriter since the hiring of Weitz, who also directed American Pie. Stoppard's decreased role is probably for the best, I think, though I have no opinion on whether hiring Weitz was as bad an idea as some fans of the series seem to believe.

For those of you wondering why I haven't been blogging much lately, I've been busy at a conference since the weekend, and tomorrow I need to report for jury duty. Plus, dealing with visa paperwork takes time...

Update: I just noticed that, in my infinite wisdom, I commented on the Pullman movies' director and on the apparent firing of Tom Stoppard, but never made the obvious point that the elimination of references to God and religion is a really bad idea. (That point just seemed too obvious, I guess...) That's been one of my two main worries about the movie ever since I first read that His Dark Materials would be adapted to film. My other worry is that the movie's will be too heavy-handed: Pullman at his best is subtle and interesting, but at his worst he's completely lacking in nuance. (One reason I was disappointed with the third book--which is still quite good--is that I'd interpreted some of the ideas in the second book as more ambiguous and nuanced than they were meant to be...)

Posted by Ed at 07:48 PM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2004

Mid-Week Links

Posted by Ed

Since I've had a long, frustrating day of research (malfunctioning scanners are not my friend!), here are some mostly non-academic links of the day:

  • Romania used to resist vampire tourism, but now--according to this Washington Post article --the country "takes it stake in the Dracula legend to heart."
  • The New York Review of Books looks at the success of Babar the elephant.
  • The doctor and medical writer Sherwin Nuland, it seems, isn't a very big fan of the TV show House.
  • The Alpine sanatorium immortalized by Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is about to close, according to this Independent article.
  • The Boston Globe marks the closing of Wordsworth.
  • Joseph Epstein reviews the collected letters of Truman Capote.
  • An English carpenter has a new theory on how Stonehenge was built, according to this Guardian article.

As always, I don't necessarily agree with (or completely like) all the articles I link to.

Posted by Ed at 08:49 PM | Comments (1)