Saturday, May 28, 2011

NOW THIS IS POOR BUT HONEST. "And if the new job doesn't work out after you bet all of your chips, you're triple fucked. And at that point the world will wag its finger at you and tell you how irresponsible it was to move when you were so poor. 'Ha, you poor people are always doing stupid shit like that!'", so obviously the language and imagery are quite rough, but I am a huge fan of John Cheese and find his writing almost always worth my time.
ELSEWHERE: Figured I'd tell you all about a couple of new/relaunched blogs. First, you may already have noticed The Groom's Family on the blogroll. This is a blog dedicated to exploring the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, from the perspective of a Jewish convert to Orthodox Christianity. Hey TGF, this is your reminder that you promised to lend me Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church, by Judith Kornblatt, when you finished it! Gimme.

And I'm very glad to report that Alias Clio has started up again! The author, "Musette," is an artsy, fashion-conscious, romantic Catholic lady of French-Canadian extraction; the blog will focus on reviews of books related in some way to history. She opens with a review of the recent Henry VIII novel Wolf Hall.

Friday, May 27, 2011

UPDATE: The director's commentary for Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is really unnecessary, but the actresses' commentary track is adorable.
HEY, JOE, I'M ALREADY THERE: Have you ever wanted to watch a John Hughes movie in which the Sex Pistols are played by Bikini Kill?

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains!

Look, it really is a John Hughes movie at its heart, so there are cartoonish racial/ethnic things which are clearly meant to parallel the class and sexual exploitation the moviemakers really understand, and which are therefore kind of attempts at empathy but which come across as gross funhouse mirrors. The class and sex issues are incredibly heartfelt though--the fluorescent colors are used to paint real, raw emotions. You can see it in the mother's-forgiveness scene but it's present from the very first scene.

It's a morality tale as well, and in no way a subtle one. Chasing fame and money is bad even when it's understandable due to a home life which led you to think that escaping your origins is an immeasurably-valuable and almost-unattainable goal. There's a bit in the liner notes for Chumbawamba's Shhh! album where they say something like, "Poor but honest just meant always having less than everyone else"; you're set up to fail somebody, sacrificing either your own integrity or your family's welfare. I see this a lot at the pregnancy center. People learn to work the system because where else can they work? So yeah... this movie knows why that happens, and also why the zero-sum game of "I've been jerked around so I can do whatever I want" is still cruel and disloyal. Again, it's a primary-colors morality tale, but not an entirely stupid or unsympathetic one. The "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" scene in this movie actually manages to be rawer than the true-life original.

Diane Lane, apparently just 15 when this was filmed, is perfect; actually all the actresses are perfect. The men not so much, but oh well.

The "professionals" song is pretty clearly based on the Raincoats' terrific "Off-Duty Trip."

The final MTV version of the Stains' big, stolen hit is so amazingly perfect that I could almost hear Casey Kacem introducing it. "Q-107, Washington's top 40! That was 'Karma Chameleon'; now here's the Stains!" Absolutely incredible pastiche. About to listen to the first of two commentary tracks.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Sundays, C. Elizabeth Floyd, shows up for worship at Trinity Baptist Church of Metro Atlanta, with her Bible in hand.

But the large, black leather Bible with dog-eared pages and hand-written notes in the margins isn't just any Bible: It's the King James Version.

And Floyd, like many African-Americans, wouldn't have it any other way. It's more than mere tradition. A civil rights veteran called the KJV's thees and thous "romantic," and a scholar spoke of black churches' "love affair" with the king's English. ...

"It's the predominant version of the Bible that's used at Trinity." More than other Americans, African-Americans have clung to the KJV's 400-year-old elevated prose. According to a recent study by LifeWay Research, only 14 percent of African-Americans have never read the KJV, compared to 27 percent of U.S. adults overall.

The Rev. Cheryl Sanders, an ordained minister and professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, said the KJV's soaring language can uplift listeners, especially those who have been oppressed.

"It's a loftiness to the language that I believe appealed to people who are constantly being told, `You don't count. You're nobody. You're at the bottom rung of the ladder," said Sanders, who has written about black Christians' use of the KJV. "If I can memorize a verse of Scripture, it gives me a certain sense of dignity."

more (via GetReligion)
"NOW I'M A LAMP." A couple cheap or obvious ones, but most of these are great. Via TKB.
HIGH HEELS ON A WINDOWSILL: THE DEFINITION OF REVOLUTIONARY SUCCESS: I haven't got much to say about Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's lush biopic about Cuban gay/dissident writer (the adjectives are interchangeable) Reinaldo Arenas. If you know the basic outlines of the guy's life, you know what to expect, really.

I will say that the one major objection I had at the start of the movie--why are they talking in heavily-accented English, rather than either Spanish or accentless English?--ultimately struck me as a really interesting choice. It started to make sense for me during the class in Russian, and then there was the scene with Arenas and the exiles speaking in French: Using heavy accents is a way to express the position of an island caught between America and the Soviet Union, with no sense that her own language is adequate to the political world of her times. The accents also, of course, make Cuba's global marginalization mirror the internal exile of the homosexual. If you don't speak Spanish you will miss some of the movie--although an English-speaker can probably guess the meaning of the mural of Castro, with the slogan, LA HISTORIA ME ABSOLVERA--but mostly I think the decision to make the movie in an inherently marginal and alienating accent was the right one.

The final moment of violence, well... if it really happened then so be it and I'm sorry. If it didn't, putting it in your movie seems to me like a gross concession to the American revulsion from suffering. I would say more but don't want to make it too obvious what happens; suffice it to say that I think the treatment of suffering-in-Cuba and suffering-in-America would have been much deeper and more complex had this thing not happened.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"WE LIKE LISTENING": The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum or, in its American titles, A Girl in Love or Never Read the Comments! SPOILERS, obviously.

Katharina Blum lives in West Germany, and it's Carnival so everyone is loosened-up and in costume. She is generally considered quite prudish, but goes to a party and ends up taking a young man home. He's a terrorist of some unspecified Red hue.

The next morning the cops invade her home. The moment in which the lady cop balances herself by putting her hand on Katharina's naked buttock is especially harsh, almost defining the word "objectification"; and I'll also call your gendered attention to the moment which provokes it, when a male cop is startled by accidental gunfire and he responds to his embarrassment by yelling at Katharina to put on clothes instead of her robe. She is interrogated. Over the course of the next however-many days, she is interrogated (they note that she pays for her own coffee) and newspaper reporters collude in the destruction of her reputation. Her divorce, her parentage, her aunt's life are all dragged through the mud. The press explicitly works hand-in-glove with the government. (“Front-page story” appears to be an Englishism, as Schadenfreude is a Germanicism.)

Katharina's life has its shaming elements, as whose life doesn't?, and those elements are deployed for political gain. This isn't subtle; the "reporters" blatantly lie, and Katharina is excoriated for preferring money to virtue by people who are quite obviously choosing cash over kindness. This is a morality tale about the cruelties inherent in our reality-TV morality tales.

I'm also struck, of course, by how opportunistic we are in our uses of culturally-sanctioned hatred. Katharina's accusers rely on misogyny for exactly the same reason that Sarah Palin's and Hillary Clinton's accusers so often rely on it (and Paris Hilton's or Snooki's, really, while we're here--this isn't about politics so much as it is about publicly-acceptable scapegoatesses): because they can. Play by my rules and I won't call in the referee.

There's so much else to talk about: There's the role of photography in shaping our notion of "truth"; there's the vomit in the toilet of the first cell to which Katharina is led and her pathetic feminine attempt to clean it up. (I think this is somewhat echoed in her insistence in cleaning and caring for her mother's body after death. There's the same association of femininity with vulnerability and shame, and yet also with care and cleaning.) There's Katharina's aunt's reliance on the guest/host relationship in the face of the overwhelming twentieth-century state-vs.-individual bulldozing. There's Katharina's driving, “mostly when it rains and when I'm alone”; the interrogator's viciously dry invocation of scarcity economics ("Perhaps we can learn how to own an apartment"). Surrealism: The stain on the door (echoes of Barton Fink) which Katharina opens to find spies putting on their costumes of sheiks and whores. Carnival gives all kinds of opportunities, to all kinds of maskers. An undeclared life: her unexplained miles on the meter. The ladies' room as the place where alliances might be formed. This is a really intensely-observed movie.

Power is so attentive to the cruelties of detail. Detail gives us our facial features, our humanity, and it's so often the small brutal detail by which we attempt to remove that humanity from others. Power creates its own narratives the same way everyone else does, through the thousand little choices of where to turn the light and where to throw a shadow by which a person is made into a persona. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is as much an indictment of art as anything in Shakespeare. And then there's the anonymous letter-writer, telling her, "Learn to pray again." Absolutely horrible, and absolutely what would happen.

The smash-cut from “We live in a free country!” to the tabloid Joan-Jett-reformatory photos of Katharina is pretty classic. Libertarians often argue that culture will take over from government in sanctioning wrong behavior. I wonder how many of them really want the punishments of internet culture, from which there is no escape. (I know the counterarguments, of which the strongest is that the culture which shapes the non-legal punishments inevitably shapes the legal—government is in no way an escape hatch from the problems of culture, and in many ways compounds those problems, especially due to civil servants' elite status relative to the people they regulate. But I wish more libertarians argued that the government is like a market with guns, whereas corporations are merely markets vying for guns. Or, in other words, Tim Carney for President in 2014!)

“You're divorced. You have no ties.” This is spoken by an interrogator, and is patently false, as it is always false. Divorce is not rewind. Most obviously when there are children; but even when there are not, divorce is never control-Z.

The absolute betrayal on her face, the iron control and the broken trust, is just shattering when she realizes that the priests only let her come to their sanctuary in order to make her conciliate her ex-husband. Again she's forced to recognize that everyone wants to use her new vulnerability to their own ends.

And then the final scene, a speech in favor of the freedom of the press, is over-the-top villainous. All my sympathies are engaged, and yet I can't help but think, Do you really WANT to cut off the branch you're perched on? I don't know, I suppose you could argue that the greatest virtue of unshakable freedom of the press (which has happened where, ever?) is that other artists can point out the destructive effects of the press without calling for censorship.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"THERE ARE BAD TIMES JUST AROUND THE CORNER." The Twilight Struggle proved to be a bit of a just-before-dawn Struggle, but if you ignore everything explicitly about Communism (...I know) this is a really great bracer. Everybody dies eventually; you might as well die ornery. There's no duty to retreat.
Von Bayern sat down across the table from the two men. "I was an associate professor, working at the University at Alexandria. An Imperial official, a magistrate... well, she seduced me first. Or I allowed myself to be seduced. Or... There is not much blood involved, actually, not at one time, unless the person is driven to gorge. And infection is not inevitable. That is what a young man says to a young woman he desires, is it not? There is not so much blood, not so much pain, as she has heard, and no consequence is inevitable. Until one morning one wakes up, and is sick." He smiled, absolutely without humor. "Hungering for strange things...."

--John Ford, The Dragon Waiting, in a description of vampirism

Friday, May 20, 2011

ON DECK: Uh, neither of those were the real post I promised, which will be about The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. You'll get it tomorrow night. I'm sorry!
ONLINE YA FICTION DYSTOPIA GENERATOR. To create your own one-trick-pony novel where an all-powerful government has the same idee fixe that you do!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CAMEL THORN TREES. Not a painting; via Rrrr. Real posting soon.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

LIKE THOSE OTHER STICKY VALENTINES: A lot of people seem to view the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a symbolic victory. I think that's right in many ways. But at the same time I think it's something else; how do we know the difference between a symbolic act and a sentimental act?

I know part of my distaste for the celebrations of his death (beyond the basic fact that celebrating even the death of Hitler is very different from celebrating victory in World War II) was because it seemed to make war into sentiment. Mothers die in Iraq but we feel very good! That's an attitude which can only exist in the absence of the draft.

Anyway, since I'm constantly defending symbolic politics I thought I should note how easily it can serve as the vehicle for saccharine fantasy; vengeance fantasy, in this case.
Russian film lovers can explore a treasure trove of Soviet films as legendary movie studio Mosfilm has posted dozens of its most famous films on YouTube for anyone to watch for free.

The films, legendary for many Russians but often little known in the West, include the comedies of Georgian-Russian director Georgi Daneliya, “Gentlemen of Fortune” and “Mimino”; “The White Sun Of The Desert,” a much-loved adventure story set in Central Asia that is always watched by cosmonauts before a space launch; and classic melodramas such as Eldar Ryazanov’s “A Cruel Romance” with Nikita Mikhalkov and “A Railway Station for Two” starring the late Lyudmila Gurchenko.

Every week, the studio will upload five new films onto the channel, the studio said in an official press release, and expects to have 200 by the end of the year.

Other films uploaded include “Andrei Rublev” and “The Mirror,” two works by one of Russia’s greatest art-house directors, Andrei Tarkovsky.


eta: OK, I thought this was just random ridiculous satire of The New Russian Millionaires (TM), but it turns out to be an ad for DirecTV (which I don't know what that is, as Radar O'Reilly would say). That makes me a lot less okay with the intense, OTT Russian stereotyping.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

THE REAL WORLD: CHINESE GULAG. Last night we stumbled upon the Laogai Research Foundation's Laogai Museum, a very quick walk north from Dupont Circle. LRF was founded by Harry Wu, the fearless man who exposed the Chinese gulag system. We're visiting the museum soon, and if you're in DC, you should too. I'll tell you more about it once we've been inside.

(Post title is because of the bizarre coincidence that the museum is housed in the former Real World: DC rowhouse.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A LOT GOING ON AT BALKINIZATION. "Bin Laden's Greatest Legacy: The Surveillance State"; Deborah Pearlstein points out that even the merely strategic calculus on interrogation methods involves a lot more than just "Did we get a truthful answer to the question we happened to be asking this time?" (last paragraph); more on the role of torture in finding Bin Laden, with a bright glittering array of Newspeak euphemisms (second paragraph).
"ALL THE FROGS CROAK BEFORE THE STORM: DOSTOEVSKY VS. TOLSTOY ON HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTIONS." Worth it regardless of what you make of the author's own position.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

KITCHEN ADVENTURES: SOCCA STAR. Socca (soccas? socci?) are fried chickpea pancakes, stupidly easy and tasty. I posted about them here and here.

Tonight, for dinner, I had THE BEST SOCCAS SO FAR. They came in three batches, which I will detail from least-awesome to stellar.

1. Thin soccas flavored only with minced jalapeno and a bit of salt, topped with habanero jack cheese and fresh tomato slices. I loved the thin crispiness--these were almost like quesadillas, really--and they were really tasty but not outstanding.

2. Slightly thicker socci, basically like slightly-too-large versions of silver dollar pancakes, flavored with "Moroccan mustard" (I still don't know what makes it Moroccan, but okay), minced jalapeno, salt, and some juice from a can of tomatoes. I let these cook in a very hot pan and was afraid I'd burnt them when I saw their very dark patches. Fortunately, they weren't burnt at all. The tangy mustard worked really well, although I was glad that these were the smallest batch as the flavor is strong. You don't need a lot of these to get the point.

3. THE BEST SOCCA. These were thicker than the "quesadilla" socca, and flavored with tomato-can juice, minced jalapeno and ginger, cumin, a tiny hit of cinnamon, garam masala, curry powder, a sesame-ginger dressing-type thing, and a bit of salt. These were ridiculously good, slightly exotic and spicy but not too hot (the chickpea flour is good at gentling the hot peppers) and just irresistible.

Once I'd minced the minced things, each batch took about 5 - 7 minutes I think, making socca a terrific choice for a quick, refreshing meal. Just be aware that the pancakes are a bit denser than you'd expect: Even small ones will fill you up fast.
I DON'T BELIEVE IN MODERN LOVE: I have a review in the current Weekly Standard of the Neue Galerie's "Vienna 1900" exhibit. It's a great show; go see it! It'll run until at June 27. The review is subscribers-only for now, but I'll let you know if that changes.
SOME LINKS ABOUT TORTURE, SINCE APPARENTLY WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THIS AGAIN. This Balkinization post mostly interesting to me for the intensely depressing poll data. I believe the children are the future!

Two takes on how the US got the intelligence which led to Bin Laden's death, in neither of which do we see an actual [ETA: by which I mean, admitted/confirmed] example of torture "working": 'here and here. Don't count on making up your mind on the moral issues based on these timelines, though; first of all, utilitarianism is evil, and second of all, the relevant information will probably remain classified for a very long time.

You people already know what I think.

Monday, May 02, 2011

A TRIVIAL POSTSCRIPT. While sometimes it is accurate to attribute actions you approve to "Obama" and actions you despise to "America," or vice versa, most of the time if you use that formula you're being a self-righteous jackass. Similarly if you can recognize either good or bad qualities in American culture but can't recognize these exact same qualities when displayed by Obama. As I think we should all be well aware by now, he is as American as anybody.

...Is this one of my meta-pharisaical posts again? "I'm so glad I'm not self-righteous like those other people!" Still, it seemed worth saying.

I wish we were celebrating the end of a war. For more on that, my friends seem to follow and recommend Small Wars Journal, so you might check them out.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

THE NEEDLE'S EYE AND THE DAMAGE DONE: In 2008, Walter Olson of Overlawyered recommended This Gun for Hire. So now you know how long it takes something to reach the top of my Netflix queue! Here are a few thoughts on this terrific movie.

First, Veronica Lake is extraordinary. Her sad, forgiving eyes and husky, hopeful, low-rent voice might be even more startling here than they were in Sullivan's Travels. She's a noir woman who is neither brassy nor slinky, with more future than past and more wisdom than sense.

Alan Ladd is also really good here. He gets all the sentiment of the show (based on a Graham Greene novel, which I suppose explains the brief suicidal-tendencies scene) but he makes a difficult part work about as well as it could.

The direction is classic noir, opening with Ladd, as killer-for-hire Raven, sweaty and off-kilter in his flophouse bed. We get venetian blinds, centered framing when the major villain is finally cornered, candles in a thunderstorm and searchlights raking a railyard, menacing opulence and magic tricks. This is a hugely engaging and entertaining movie.

Its characterizations also reminded me, unexpectedly, of Jamaica Inn, which I recently rewatched as part of AFI's Hitchcock retrospective. Both movies feature a smart, basically "lawful good," resourceful young woman whose sympathies are torn between a lawman and an underclass killer. In both movies compassion, guilt, and repentance are the provinces of those without much money; the rich are irredeemably cruel. I think This Gun for Hire glosses over its killer's opening violence toward a housemaid, whereas Jamaica Inn doesn't prettify the head wrecker's cruelty to his wife, but overall their characters and situations are surprisingly similar. In both movies, power corrupts--the power of the gun, but even more deeply, the power of money.
I take This American Life for granted and often it can seem too familiar and predictable. Some of the more famous voices on the show grate on me, and the giggles, awkwardness and teenager-y cuteness can feel contrived; sometimes I just want them to sound like grownups. Yet, not so rarely they come through with something pretty great that you wouldn’t hear elsewhere. Jogging the other day I listened to this pretty amazing piece about a few episodes of This Is Your Life from the 1950s that brought the show’s usual approach to the challenging realm of atrocity survivors. TIYL was of course a hugely popular show with an audience of many millions; it was hosted by Ralph Edwards, who also taught Sunday School and was one of those 1950s reassuring voices of a benevolent status quo.

The This American Life piece (btw, it occurs to me that the show’s name must be indebted to This is Your Life — duh, I guess) is about a couple of jaw-dropping episodes in which Edwards brought (under false pretenses — guests were almost always surprised) on the show, to be confronted by friends and associates from their past, first, a Holocaust survivor (according to This American Life host Allison Silverman, the first person to discuss her experiences in the camps on American television), second, a Hiroshima survivor.

more, including footage from the Holocaust survivor's episode. Via Ratty.