22 October 2009


Victor and I went to see Jonathan Lear speak on irony at the Chicago Humanities Festival in Hyde Park last month. Lear is a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago who has made irony into a specialty.

It's a pleasure to listen to a really thoughtful person. Jonathan Lear reminded me that philosophers are concerned not just with ideas, but how ideas can fuel a good (or better) life. In his discussion of irony, Lear started with a dictionary definition, which I thought an unworthy sort of straw man, but as his argument developed, I appreciated the simplistic beginning. Lear argues that the ironic stance is far from unserious; the ironist may be absolutely earnest in his quest for genuine meaning. The ironist observes that in a roomful of "Christians" there is not a single true Christian; that in a hospital ostensibly devoted to the care of the sick, there are no real healers, that in the world's greatest democracy only a minority of citizens regularly vote.

It has often been said that we live in an age of irony; the ironic stance is seen as hip, perhaps, but lacking in substance. Certainly the ironist is seen as the opposite of sincere (after all, the dictionary definition insists that irony involves saying the opposite of what you mean). On the contrary, Lear argues that the ironist is the one who feels most deeply: unable to bear hypocrisy, he exposes it with assertions designed to make others as uncomfortable as he already is. Lear sees the moment of ironic recognition (for example, the moment the teacher realizes that all this effort he expends in grading papers really has nothing to do with students' learning) as a profound one; potentially the first step we can take toward living a more authentic life.

It is important, of course, not to get stuck in the ironic moment, but to figure out, once you recognize the fake, how to generate the real--how to be a real teacher, citizen, etc. Because when we call out something as fake, we implicitly acknowledge that the real thing exists. Somewhere, somehow.

So, in a way, ironists are actually romantics, in love with ideals. Disappointed romantics, perhaps, but also earnest romantics. (Things always contain their opposites.)

My Neighbor, My Killer

This documentary by filmmaker Anne Aghion (another Chicago International Film Festival screening) examines Rwanda as it recovers from years of genocide. It documents the system of informal, community-based justice--gacaca--that is being used to help reconcile Rwandans to their horrific past. While the very biggest offenders continue to be dealt with by Rwanda's formal justice system, the Rwandan government has implemented the gacaca system to deal with less serious criminals, based on the rationale that it doesn't help anyone for a huge proportion of the population to languish in jail--provided room and board on the public dime.

But it's crucial to recognize that these "less serious" criminals are only less serious in the context of widespread genocide. Often, the people being dealt with in gacaca are still mass murderers, or facilitators of mass murder. The documentary identifies the goals of the gacaca: that the accused will acknowledge, explain, and ask forgiveness for his crimes from the community; that the community has its say; that there is reconciliation, and the accused rejoins the community.

It sounds beautiful, but--as Aghion documents--it is easier said than done. We see several of the accused insisting on their innocence even when multiple witnesses identify them. More often, we see men (for only accused men are shown) admitting to lesser crimes, insisting they did their best; they didn't know, they were afraid...the Nuremberg defense.

In short, the process is less than satisfying. But Aghion allows us to see how the community seems to survive anyhow. Rwanda comes across as a gorgeous country; it is hard to reconcile past atrocities with the verdant scenery.

This beautifully done documentary is evidence of how we can really survive anything, if we have to.

16 October 2009

Chicago Overcoat

This movie was a big favorite at the Chicago International Film Festival, largely because it was made here with a local crew and lots of local cast members, and written, directed, and produced by graduates of Columbia College, which is right downtown. Plus, it's a gangster movie, and Chicagoans are perversely proud of the city's violent heritage.

The movie turns on some pretty familiar situations: a retired hitman puts himself back into action to earn the cash he needs to make things right with his family and buy himself a more interesting retirement. At the same time, a lonely honest member of the Chicago police force sees an opportunity to redeem his sad career by connecting a string of 20-year-old murders with a couple of newer ones. In the process, he convinces his new, young partner to adopt his old-fashioned methods.

The movie is told in voice-over from the hitman's point of view. This is consistent with some noir traditions, but by the end of the movie I was finding the voiceover inconsistent with the hitman's character. He just didn't seem like an introspective guy--I couldn't fathom who he was talking to or why he was telling his story.

Also, I enjoyed the Chicago settings a lot less than I thought I would. Seeing a movie like Batman Begins in recognizable Chicago settings is one thing. That movie is obviously a fantasy. Chicago Overcoat takes place here and now, and it was jarring and unpleasant (rather than exciting) to experience for a while its vision of an an ongoing violent underworld in our own neighborhoods, facilitated by viciously corrupt police and elected officials. An alderman is murdered in his own office. A shootout transpires in a rooftop parking lot. Ick!

Maybe as I get older violent movies come to seem more real to me and less like cartoons. In any case, Chicago Overcoat is an admirable accomplishment for a group of recent film school graduates, but I wasn't a big fan.


We caught this excellent French thriller last weekend at the Chicago International Film Festival. An airport worker, Vincent, gets caught up in a terrorist plot and is recruited--somewhat against his will--into spying for MI-5. From the start, we know the fellow is brighter than his job and companion would indicate (he's reading when we meet him, and can't put his book down), but it's impossible to predict how he'll do in the new situations he's thrust into.

This movie is full of terrific performances--particularly by Guillaume Canet, who plays Vincent; Geraldine Pailhas, who plays Claire, the mark he's meant to seduce and recruit in turn; and Stephen Rea, who plays Palmer, Vincent's MI-5 controller. It keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. What more can you ask from a thriller?


We caught this rather slow-moving French movie by Claude Chabrol and starring Gerard Depardieu last week during the Chicago International Film Festival. The movie starts with a pretty conventional detective movie premise: a vacationing policeman is presented with a case he just can't ignore. There are lots of twists and turns, but they only matter if you care about the characters--Victor didn't and I did.

And I'm afraid I did only because Depardieu is such a favorite of mine--with anyone else in the lead, I probably would have fallen asleep, too.

Animal Crackers

I have paid to see this show twice in a week, and was glad to do it. The cast has brought the Marx brothers and the vaudeville era to life in a way I had not previously seen on stage. I was frankly amazed by the level of talent in this group of performers--actors, musicians, and dancers, not to mention the direction and choreography that shaped this realization of the 80-year-old show.

We experienced a couple of serious disappointments at the Goodman in the past and had largely avoided its productions for that reason.

We won't be avoiding it anymore.

06 October 2009


Penelope Lively is one of the most consistently rewarding novelists I know of. Is it a British female thing? Because it occurs to me I could say the same of Anita Brookner and Iris Murdoch (and Jane Austen, for that matter).

In Consequences, Lively's subject is how happenstance shapes our lives. In a way, it's a no-brainer: things happen, and so Things Happen. As the story begins, two young people from very different backgrounds happen to sit on the same bench in a London park and effect a very unconventional union--particularly unusual in the 1930s, I imagine. The novel essentially tells of the consequences of that meeting, for themselves, their families, and their descendants.

Beautifully written and deeply moving.

05 October 2009

Mistakes Were Made

This play, put on by A Red Orchid Theatre, stars Michael Shannon (nominated for the Oscar last year for his turn as a mentally ill man befriended by the couple in Revolutionary Road) in a tour-de-force performance of what is almost a one-man show. Splendidly written, the play centers on a New York theater producer, Felix Artifax, desperately trying to make the deals necessary to bring to the stage an unlikely production about the French Revolution. Mistakes Were Made is often hysterically funny--Felix brags about having previously produced Medea, starring Suzanne Somers--but over the course of its nearly two hours, you get uncomfortable. Shannon brings tremendous physicality to the role, and it's a small theater. Some of the folks in the front rows were visibly disturbed. And after a while Felix's troubles come to seem anything but funny--even tragic. You wonder how the play can possibly resolve itself.

And then it does, with a deft gesture.

Highly recommended.

The Company

This movie is of interest for great performances by the Joffrey Ballet, but as a movie, it is a mess. Not recommended except for dance junkies.