January 28, 2005

Links of the Day

Posted by Susan

A few links, some of them Ed-approved.

  • I recently read (and highly recommend) Wendy Doniger's new book, The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was, the third in a trilogy of works about confused or ambiguous identities (frequently) in erotic situations. Doniger uses a variety of sources (primarily B-movies, the plays of Shakespeare, and Hindu mythology) to examine the theme of self-impersonation. An essay ("The Mythology of Self-Imitation in Passing: Race, Gender, and Politics") adapted from the book is available here. As with many of Doniger's works, half the fun is in reading her notes, in which I learned not only of the existance of an article entitled "The Erotics of the Wet Sari in Hindi Films", but this anecdote about the filming of Dr. Zhivago:

    For the scene in which the students march down Gorky Street singing the Communist anthem, the "Internationale," and are trampled to death by the charging Cossacks, they rounded up hundreds of Spanish extras and began to teach them the "Internationale". Soon, they realized that the xtras already knew the "Internationale". They were old Spanish civil war fighters who had long pretended to be loyal to Franco and were now "pretending" to be communists, singing the song they had sung a quarter of a century ago, now imitating again the very people (the 1918 Russian communists) they had imitated in 1938.

    (She goes on to add that difficulties arose when secret police began to observe the extras to see who really knew the song, at which point they all refused to sing).
  • Wondering what happened to Alan Keyes? Apparently he's still in Illinois and may be considering running for governor in the upcoming elections. The Illinois Leader reports that Keyes held the initial meeting of Cook County United this evening, aiming to convene "40-50 of the best conservative activists in Cook County." I was especially charmed by the description of Keyes as "the Elmer Gantry of Illinois politics". UPDATE: Looks like Keyes can't run for governor--one has to be a resident of Illinois for three years before running. So sad.
  • Noted excellent (though legally sketchy) wine store Sam's Wine & Spirits has started a twice-weekly wine blog, Case by Case. Written by Bill St. John, a columnist for Wine & Spirits, this week's recommendation is a Malbec (hurrah!).
  • A recent ruling by the European Patent Office will restrict the patents held by Myriad Genetics on the breast cancer susceptibility gene BRCA1, reports Nature. Previously, all clinical tests for mutations in BRCA1 had to be carried out in Myriad's Salt Lake City labs. The new ruling restricts Myriad's patent to only one probe that tests for the gene. However, Myriad retains its patent on the N-terminal deletion mutant that is the most common cause of familial breast cancer in Ashkenazi Jews.

Posted by Susan at 11:45 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2005

Books and Movies.

Posted by Matt

Our main page appears to be empty, so let me take a brief break from my work to put something here.

I've read several books this month, but I don't have the time to write about any of them in much detail. I recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which was my first encounter with his work. A couple of quotes:

"He looked at me with eyes narrowed as if to apologize for being unable to speak because of the nervous black panther sleeping by his side. Which is not to say that there was a black panther sleeping by his side: he just looked as if there were."

"Snow floated down every once in a while, but it was frail snow, like a memory fading into the distance."

I'm currently reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about which perhaps more later.

I also started a Netflix subscription and I've been watching various things I've been told to see by people who are more film-literate than I. Despite the inherent appeal of its being mentioned in a Dan Bejar lyric, I'm afraid I didn't like Fitzcarraldo all that much. Maybe proper appreciation of it depends on having seen other Herzog films? On the other hand, I really enjoyed The Seventh Seal. The scene in which Death is cutting down a tree into which an actor has fled felt very familiar. Has it been mimicked or parodied in something with which I would be familiar? Maybe it was just the actor's plea "My performance?," and Death's reply, "Canceled. By death," which calls to mind the line "Death cancels all engagements" in Zuleika Dobson.

I also watched Kubrick's Lolita, which I thought was done well. Of course, the novel is much better, but the movie is in many ways true to the spirit of the book, and Peter Sellers as Quilty is entertaining. Nabokov wrote the screenplay, although much of what he wrote was cut. Given that the film had to satisfy censors, I think it turned out rather well.

Anyhow, Netflix is pretty nice, and recommendations of movies I should see are welcome, although my list is already terribly long.

Apologies for the rambling in this post, but I wanted to get something up on the page. We're rapidly approaching the one-year mark here at Gnostical Turpitude, so maybe I'll get around to finishing my take on the best albums (and assorted other things) of 2004, depending on how much free time I have this week.

Posted by Matt at 10:53 AM | Comments (4)

January 17, 2005

The Joys of Russian Television

Posted by Ed

Two years ago, when I arrived in Moscow for the first time, I was surprised to discover that the TV show Alf was much more popular in Russia than it was in America. One of Moscow's more popular channels aired the show every weekday evening, if I'm not mistaken, and then launched a day-long Alf marathon on a Saturday in September. When I saw the sorts of culture that America was exporting, I had to shudder at the fate of Western civilization.

Ever since then I've found it oddly intriguing to see which American movies and TV shows are aired on Russian TV. WB shows seem to be popular--you can often watch Charmed or Smallville on weeknights--and there's always a bad American movie being shown. Since I've arrived, I've seen parts of The Cable Guy, The Bachelor (starring Chris O'Donnell), Serendipity, Six Days Seven Nights, and Anna and the King. The last of these movies is inoffensive enough, I suppose, but I'd never dream of watching any of the other movies if they weren't being shown in another language. (Fun fact: in Russian, the title of Serendipity is translated as Intuition. Robert Merton would be intrigued!)

I've often wondered whether the bad movies shown on foreign TV have a distorting effect on international views of the U.S., but until this weekend, I never had any evidence for this theory. Then, on Saturday, I met an American grad student who--like me--lives in an apartment with a khoziaika, an older woman who owns a multiple-bedroom apartment and rents out one of the rooms to a foreigner. This woman apparently has some interesting ideas about U.S. popular culture. She's a huge fan of the actor Eric Roberts, for example, and is convinced that he's a big star in America. (All I know about him is that he's the much less successful brother of Julia Roberts.) She even knows his movies, and was determined to watch The Cable Guy because he appears in it! Roberts apparently appears in the movie for only a moment, but this woman apparently believed that this was because he was a famous actor making a cameo, not because he was a failed movie star taking a small role in a horrible movie. She was delighted, moreover, to have the chance to see him once again.

I wouldn't attach too much significance to the pop culture preferences of a 60-something Russian widow, of course. But I just can't help wondering: many people in foreign countries detest the pop culture exported by America, and consider the U.S. a corrosive force in the world of culture. Should we really be surprised, if what many foreigners see on TV are cat-eating aliens and third-tier Jim Carrey movies?

Posted by Ed at 02:24 AM | Comments (3)

January 11, 2005

Greetings from Moscow

Posted by Ed

In recent weeks, as you may or may not have noticed, I haven't been the most active of bloggers. There are several different reasons for this, but one of them really stands out: last Thursday I left the United States for nine months of research in Russia. In the weeks before I left, I was too busy to do much reading, thinking, or writing, and my spare moments were taken up by completely different sorts of activities. Now that I'm here, I expect to begin blogging again semi-regularly, but I'll still need to figure out exactly what I'll be writing about.

The main point of my trip to Russia will be to do the research for my doctoral dissertation, a study of party discipline in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1961. (In extremely simple terms, I'll be looking at why and how individual Communists were expelled from, and censured by, the party for their personal behavior.) I'll be in Russia until roughly the start of October, spending somewhere between a third and a half of my time in Moscow and the rest in several provincial centers. (I haven't decided which ones yet, but Ivanovo, Saratov, Ekaterinburg, Omsk, and Tver' are all candidates. I don't plan to go to Siberia until at least April or so, though.)

For now, I don't know how often I'll be blogging--probably once every few days while I'm here in Moscow and less often while I'm in the provinces. I'll probably write a bunch of entries on random everyday subjects that interest me--the idiosyncracies of Russian supermarkets, the joys of the Moscow metro, or the wonderful world of Russian bookstores, say. I'll also probably write some entries related to my archival work, though I probably won't want to discuss my research in too much detail. (I don't think I'll want to write publicly about annoying archive workers I encounter, fantastic archival discoveries I make, or brilliant thoughts that occur to me.) I'll probably also discuss my travels on this blog, though I hope to avoid turning this site into a typical livejournal, loaded with personal details of limited interest to anyone who doesn't know me.

My trip so far has been quite routine. The fearsome Russian winter has been rather mild, so far--there's snow on the ground, but the slush is much more of a pain. (My biggest annoyance, in fact, is the water dripping from the roofs of buildings, though I expect the temperature to start dropping any day now.)

Posted by Ed at 06:45 AM | Comments (2)

January 02, 2005

Muzzled in Moscow

Posted by Ed

Today's Boston Globe ideas section features an excellent Masha Gessen article on the decline of freedom in Russia. An excerpt:

The message of these two verdicts is that, in an important sense, we have returned to the late Soviet period, the Brezhnev era. At that point, Soviet terror was not total: Many people read and distributed samizdat publications, for example, and many more listened to "Voice of America" and other foreign broadcasters that used shortwave frequencies to get information to the Soviet people. But every once in a while, someone was imprisoned for one of these transgressions. The late-Soviet regime was far more economical than the Stalin regime: Its leaders seemed to understand that, to keep the country in line, they didn't need to imprison tens of millions of people. They just needed frequently to punish a few people at random.

I'm not sure how much I'll be able to post this week, since I leave for Russia on Thursday. But I have a handful of blog entries in the works...

Posted by Ed at 11:01 AM | Comments (4)

January 01, 2005

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator

Posted by Ed

Random thought of the day: over the last two years, Leonardo DiCaprio has been transformed from the favorite actor of young teenage girls to the quintessential movie star for senior citizens. His main cinematic duty was once to make twelve-year old girls sigh with longing, and is now to make 70-year-old men laugh nostalgically about the world of their youth.

In case you haven't guessed yet, last night Susan and I went to see The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's new biopic about the young Howard Hughes. I don't have a lot to say about the movie, I'm afraid; it was entertaining enough for two hours or so, but it petered out near the end, and I'm not completely sure what the point of making it was. (If Scorsese intended it to have some deep and profound meaning, as I suspect he kind of did, then that meaning completely eluded me.) The story was entertaining enough, gave viewers an evocative portrait of a colorful moment in time, and featured lots of likeable actors in fairly non-taxing roles. It would be silly to call this a great movie, I think, but it was decent enough most of the time.

In general, I found it hard to be terribly judgmental about The Aviator, even when it elicited a strong reaction. The most widely discussed role in the movie, for instance, was Cate Blanchett's performance as Katharine Hepburn--a performance that's won plaudits from most critics. I'm generally a fan of Cate Blanchett, but at first I found her role in The Aviator intensely annoying: she seemed to be impersonating a Hepburn caricature, rather than acting. Then again, I often find Hepburn herself intensely annoying and I think she was often a self-caricature, so perhaps the performance was reasonable enough. (Hepburn was almost completely unwatchable in The Lion in Winter, for example, and I say this as someone who finds the idea of Katharine Hepburn quite appealing.) Luckily, Blanchett's acting became much more restrained and effective as the movie went on.

If I had to make a larger point about Blanchett's performance, it would be this: her role perfectly fit an entertaining enough movie that never seemed completely real. Consider the cast. Cate Blanchett is an acclaimed actress who impersonated a Hollywood icon. Alec Baldwin and John C. Reilly were character actors portraying exactly the characters they always play--a blustery blowhard and a befuddled mook, respectively. Lots of other actors, from Jude Law to Kate Beckinsale, spent their time playing... other actors. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance had an odd feel, as if you'd never see someone like the man he played anywhere outside a movie. I never find DiCaprio's performances fully real, and this case was no exception. DiCaprio's roles often seem quite different from each other, so it's not quite accurate to say that he always seems like Leonardo DiCaprio when he's on screen. But there's an element of truth to that, just as there's a lot of truth to the idea that DiCaprio always seems to be acting. The result is that his performances always seem slightly odd to me, despite seeming competent enough in most ways.

The audience certainly seemed to love DiCaprio's performance, which brings me back to the idea that started off this review. The theater last night was full of aging couples who seemed to love every moment of the movie. I haven't seen a crowd so gray in quite a while--in fact, since I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can two years ago. DiCaprio's days as a sex symbol may be limited. I'm not convinced that he has what it takes to be a great actor who works for serious directors, which seems to be his current goal. But if his last few performances are any indication, he'll always have a job making old people laugh!

Tangential update: The more I think about it, the more similarities I can see between Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator. Both have a nostalgic feel, with a sense of humor likely to appeal most to viewers over 50. Both of them have a slightly nostalgic look and deal with somewhat nostalgic themes--including, not surprisingly, aviation. (If memory serves, DiCaprio's character pretends to be an airline pilot and spends lots of time hanging out in airports in Catch Me if You Can.) Both movies have an all-American, optimistic message, and both are most successful when they have no aspirations beyond entertaining the public. The Aviator is least successful when it tries to look at Howard Hughes's relationship with his mother, just as Catch Me if You Can becomes less convincing when it tries to delve into the psyche of its protagonist.

Posted by Ed at 05:09 PM | Comments (2)

Late New Year's Eve Reading

Posted by Matt

I've just finished reading Nabokov's Transparent Things, from which I'd like to quote: "For some people, alas, a gal is nothing but a unit of acceleration used in geodesy."

I had to look that up. It is.

The novel was interesting. Worth reading, if you like Nabokov. It's quite short -- about a hundred pages -- and somehow encapsulates most of the good and bad things about Nabokov's writing. He has some metaphysical ruminations on time, much like those in Ada, which are uninteresting and derail the story at points. Also irritating (to a physicist, at least) is his occasional use of the word "spacetime" when he means just "time." It's an attempt at -- what? cleverness? mockery? -- that fails to do anything but sound stupid.

As is often true of Nabokov, the book is at its best when it is both alive with brilliant prose, and compassionately focused on characters whose faults are sympathetically rendered. By now I've read enough Nabokov that his attempts at satirizing Freud have gotten old; they seem petulant rather than witty. But perhaps they were more necessary at that time than they are in the present. I imagine that a few decades from now they'll seem like a puzzling curiosity.

The book also recapitulates Nabokov's fascination with dreams. I think that here -- in exploring the boundaries between the real world and the oneiric world our minds construct, and implicitly or explicitly comparing these to the worlds he creates in his fiction -- he achieves a lot of interesting thought, much more interesting than his more direct assaults on philosophy.

One wonders what the book's central character, Hugh Person, an editor, would have done with it. In the book he edits the works of an author, R., who appears to mirror Nabokov in some ways, but Person is reluctant to alter the works of a genius. R. himself is angry when certain changes are suggested. It's as if Nabokov is mocking his own tendency to view his genius as infallible, but despite his awareness of this tendency he hasn't taken anyone's advice to fix some of the more glaring faults of the book.

Transparent Things is worth reading. It won't take up much of your time, after all. It's not one of Nabokov's best works, and it has some pretty obvious flaws, but there's more than enough genius on display at some points to justify the book.

Posted by Matt at 02:15 AM | Comments (6)