15 December 2008

White Hunter, Black Heart

Somewhere I got the idea that this was a great movie we had overlooked.

We wished we had left it overlooked.

A movie about a disaster should not be a disaster.


We could not get through this one, in spite of our admiration for Robert Downey, Jr.; Ian McKellen; and other fine actors in this terrible, terrible movie.

"D'oh" Moment of the Day

Watching North by Northwest at home last night (for the umpteenth time--it's a great favorite of ours) and suddenly noticed all the diagonals in the shots--from the opening credits, which feature the exposed steel grid of a modern office building on the bias, to scenes of Cary Grant clambering among the unusually angled support stilts of an ultramodern house near the Mt. Rushmore national monument in South Dakota.

I wondered why that was, throughout the movie, and was still wondering this morning, so I decided to try a Google search.

The "D'oh" came as I was typing in the words "north by northwest diagonals" into the Google search box.

At least I didn't have to see the search results before I had my "aha." And this is not to say that there aren't all sorts of other good reasons to shoot on the diagonal--adding to the sense of action, of things being off-kilter, and so forth.

But, clearly, N-NW is a diagonal.

05 December 2008


Saw this again on video last night and was struck by all the recognizable actors, with strong presences, in (relatively) small parts. Jason Statham has one line. Debi Mazar has a bit in a cab. You never want to take your eyes off Mark Ruffalo when he's on screen; he's just not on screen that much.

On screen most of the time are Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, of course, and they do a pretty good job of holding your attention. Collateral is another entry in the ordinary-guy-gets-thrust-into-extraordinary-situation-and-becomes-hero genre--Michael Mann's version of North by Northwest, but taking itself way more seriously.

Still, very enjoyable.

The Wind and the Lion


04 December 2008

Recent Deaths

Reading my high school alumni newsletter, I learned that a man I graduated with died of cancer last spring. I think he was the valedictorian. I have only the vaguest memory of his face and his big glasses.

And I learned that my eighth-grade English teacher died in June. "Before he became a teacher, he performed professionally as a jazz drummer." Who knew? If we had known, most of us would probably have shrugged and said, What is jazz?

Eighth graders are idiots.

I remember a person who was passionate about literature, ironic, and impatient with stupidity--yet, sometimes, resigned to it. I think we read Macbeth in his class, and Julius Caesar. Maybe Romeo and Juliet, too. I didn't learn to love Shakespeare then, but I learned the plays. Even though I have not reread Julius Caesar since, I remember it.

He had us read the plays out loud, even though we stank at it, even though you could tell he relished reading them himself.

A good teacher. RIP.

03 December 2008

Team of Rivals

I ordered this book a few months ago,after reading or hearing about a group of books that Obama has mentioned influenced him, which also included Alinsky's Rules for Radicals and Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society.

I started reading it after the election and was enthralled. Goodwin writes beautifully, and she brings Lincoln and his contemporaries to vivid life. I think I haven't read much history from this period, and my mental picture of Lincoln dates from high school social studies: a secular saint.

Goodwin both presents Lincoln as an authentic human being and highlights the elements of his character that made him such a great president at such a critical time. The book also greatly improved my understanding of the Civil War--in school I learned it was about slavery, and later I bought the notion that this was a naive view (like thinking we fought WW2 to save the Jews); at least as Goodwin describes it, slavery was an increasingly critical issue as the war progressed.

Of course I was thinking a lot about Obama as I read, and there are many parallels in their political careers and in their (apparent) temperaments. Reading about how Lincoln assembled his cabinet as Obama assembled his was a very interesting experience. A key trait of Lincoln's was his refusal to hold grudges, or to act on them. Others thought him simple, or naive for that refusal, but his insistence on seeing and expecting the best of others served him extremely well.

Finally, Lincoln assembled a cabinet of strong personalities. The strongest, Seward, thought he would be the "power behind the throne," and throughout Lincoln's presidency, there were some observers who believed that. Seward, however, was quickly disabused of his notion of Lincoln as a simpleton who needed to be led by the hand, and became his great friend and support.

Lincoln was able to manage a team of strong personalities because he was himself a confident and insightful leader. He understood his own strengths as well as the strengths of the individuals on his team, and he trusted no one's judgement so well as he trusted his own. He was idealistic, but also pragmatic.

Sound familiar?

A measure of the effectiveness of Goodwin's work: when Lincoln was assassinated, I cried and cried. I even cried for Seward and his son, who were attacked the same night. You felt the loss of something tremendous and abstract, and you also felt the loss of people you loved.

I don't know when I've read a better history book.

Taking on the System

In this tumultuous election year, I've become interested in the mechanics of how social change happens. This book by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, purports to map out exactly that process, in the context of our digital, media-saturated environment.

It's an easy, straightforward read, with some insightful analysis and an ultimately optimistic--and frankly democratic--vision, which helps you see how you can take (meaningful) part in making change happen. It didn't knock my socks off, but I liked its clarity, and the many compelling examples.

02 December 2008


This might be the best movie I almost didn't finish watching. The opening section is certainly excruciating: it's hard to watch a spoiled 13-year-old ruin lives--you see it all coming. I was ready to eject the DVD, but Victor counseled patience, and he was right.

Happily, the movie skips through time. You don't sit in jail with the wrongly convicted character; you don't pine away with the unjustly bereft character. What the movie does show, is sad enough--I think after the midpoint I was pretty constantly in tears--but at least you're not sure how things are going to unfold.

Recommended if you're in the mood for a weeper; if not, not.

01 December 2008

The Exquisite City

Chicago is just full of people with fabulous, creative ideas. The Exquisite City is one of these. In a riff on the Surrealists' exquisite corpse technique, diverse artists were asked to create a city block out of cardboard and sundry other materials, in their own style; the result, arranged in grids in the dark interior of the Viaduct Theater on Western off Belmont, is a dreamy concoction--part fantasy, part nightmare.

One of those exhibits you just have to experience--complete with Chicago sound effects and huddling hipsters. It's open through 12 December.

If you miss it, perhaps it will return. Certainly, the show's worth repeating.

Site Unseen 2008

After hearing about the Chicago Cultural Center's annual festival of site-specific installations and performance for at least three years, I finally made it for its fifth iteration, last 12 November.

There is something especially exciting about the specific and ephemeral. The festival lasts only one evening, and its components are designed for execution only in the Cultural Center's particular space during that particular evening. By its nature, video is less ephemeral, and so I found myself not so interested in the video installations scattered about the building, but rather drawn to the performances.

All of which demonstrated some degree of oddness, humor, eclecticism, and spectacle. The freedom to come and go from the various performance events makes typically challenging work less intimidating and more approachable. (You're not committed to witnessing some incomprehensible weirdness for hours.)

A very worthwhile commitment by the Cultural Center, and an event I look forward to revisiting in the future.