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Friday, August 20, 2004

"Mildred Pierce"
Dear Vanessa -- James M. Cain What with spending my summer vacation weeks far from computers, I've been doing more fiction-reading than I've done in a while. And what a good time I've been having: ten novels in a couple of months, and not a stinker among them. Novels -- who knew? The novel I'm currently shaking my head in wonder over is James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (buyable here). Have you ever read Cain? Centuries ago, I enjoyed Cain's two most famous novels -- the crime novels "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity." But I hadn't looked at his work since. In terms of its actions, "Mildred Pierce" -- which was made into a famous Joan Crawford movie by Michael Curtiz, buyable here and Netflixable here -- is epic women's fiction. There isn't a murder or a blackmail scheme to be found in the book; although Vintage publishes the book in its Vintage Crime series, it isn't a crime novel. Instead, it's about Mildred's ups and downs as she makes her way through life's cycles of work and love. It's as much this kind of thing as any Sidney Sheldon novel or supermarket romance. What makes the novel remarkable is that it's shrewdly realistic, it's hardboiled, and it's caustically funny. I suppose someone intent on dismissing "Mildred" might call it a mere potboiler, or a melodrama, or a page-turner, and it's certainly all of those things. But it's also juicy, wickedly smart, and insightful -- and it moves like a choo-choo train. I had such a rip-roaringly good time reading it that I found myself put in mind of such other non-crime/non-modernist 20th century narrative wonders as "Babbit," "What Makes Sammy Run?" (which I blogged a bit about here), and Somerset Maugham’s "Cakes and Ale" -- superb novels whose superbness resides in good stories and effective storytelling, not in abstruse linguistic gamesmanship. By no stretch of the imagination could "Mildred Pierce" be said to be "about consciousness," or "about language"; it's straightforwardly about Mildred and her world. It also reminded me of the cruel and fascinating work of John O'Hara -- but then I shook my head No. Even in "Natica Jackson" and "Butterfield 8" (sexy and mean novels that I love), O'Hara never worked up anything like this degree of straight narrative oomph. In terms of its appeal, "Mildred" is a twofer. On the one hand, it's an acute and shrewd psychological profile. Mildred is an L.A. mom in her late 20s. When the Depression destroys the family savings, her husband folds up shop, psychologically-speaking; Mildred kicks him out and starts making her own way. What soon becomes clear is what a bossy dynamo she is. And how self-deceiving, too; she's hyper-attached to imagining that she's accomplishing what she's accomplishing for the benefit of her older daughter, who isn't by any means the perfect kid Mildred imagines her to be. Viewed charitably (something Cain isn't prone to do, thank heavens), Mildred's got to do what she's... posted by Michael at August 20, 2004 | perma-link | (16) comments

More Politics
Dear Vanessa -- Hot diggity: here's more support for my election-season theme that the real battle isn't between Repubs and Dems, it's between our political class and the rest of us. It's a review of Downsizing Democracy by Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg; the book can be bought here. The reviewer's summary of the book's argument: Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, the authors assert, policy elites became disengaged from the political public because a mass base was no longer needed for influencing and manipulating public policy. By documenting the evolving disregard for citizen judgment and influence in national policy circles, this book confirms that the creeping sense of political impotence spreading across the United States is not without foundation. A passage from the book's jacket copy: With citizens pushed to the periphery of political life, narrow special interest groups from across the political spectrum--largely composed of faceless members drawn from extended mailing lists--have come to dominate state and federal decision-making. In the closing decade of the last century, this trend only intensified as the federal government, taking a cue from business management practices, rethought its relationship to its citizens as one of a provider of goods and services to individual "customers." And a few passages I've stitched together from the Amazon Reader Reviews (which are intelligent and worth reading): Voter apathy in the present is the product of the public's marginalization by our political leaders, Crenson and Ginsberg maintain. Quite simply, ruling elites don't need and don't want broad-based voter consensus in putting their agendas into action anymore. They now rely more heavily on lobbying and litigation instead ... In the place of high citizen involvement, New Politics introduced what Crensen and Ginsberg call "interest-group democracy." Public interest law firms, nonprofit think tanks and other advocacy groups (funded by foundation grants, private contributions and government contracts) trade on insider information and peddle influence within the Beltway on behalf of a plethora of constituencies, which may or may not exist in the national body politic ... Citizens have allowed themselves to be side-lined, and by this excellent account from the authors, should they choose to re-engage, they will have very hard work in front of them as they seek to overturn a half-century of deliberate ventures all seeking to reduce citizenship, increase bureaucracy, and reward corporate patrons of individual politicians who choose not to act in the public interest, but only their own... Here's a short excerpt from the book that the WashPost ran a few years ago: The candidates seeking votes on Tuesday see us as something less: not a coherent public with a collective identity but a swarm of disconnected individuals out to satisfy our personal needs in the political marketplace. We see them, in turn, as boring commercials to be tuned out. It would be a mistake to conclude, as many commentators do, that Americans are apathetic citizens gone AWOL. But there's no question that the fundamental relationship between citizen and government has changed... posted by Michael at August 20, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Dear Vanessa -- * Yahmdallah has no reservations about recommending the DVD "An Evening with Kevin Smith," here. * I'm going to be exploring Natasha Wallace's John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery for a long, long time, here. Natasha's site is a beautifully done, informative, and enlightening labor of love, as well as one of the best examples I've seen yet of a book-like -- but better -- online arts publication. * In their discussion of falling sales of romance novels, The Book Babes take note of a lot of changes in reading habits and tastes, here. * Jonathan Keats thinks David Foster Wallace ought to forget fiction and write essays instead, here. * Of the many good obits of the recently-deceased poet Czeslaw Milosz, the one I enjoyed most was at Searchblog, here. * 222 photographs of women's beach volleyball start here. * Which to spring for: the Bose Acoustic Wave, or Cambridge Soundworks' competing model? DarkoV grades them here. * Design Observer's Michael Bierut offers a tribute to the legendary film-title designer Pablo Ferro here. * Tyler Cowen hits on a down-to-earth reason why so many recent buildings and houses are so lousy, here. * Graham Lester hands out his own best-blogger awards here. * This P.J. O'Rourke "Guide to Foreigners" for the National Lampoon (here) is, if nothing else, a reminder of how very un-P.C. humor could get back in the '70s. * Forager 23's posting about how overused the Intentional Fallacy is made me laugh and think, here. * My discovery for the week is the writer Alan Wall, who writes sensible, vivid, and level-headed pieces about the current immigration mess. He also brings a valuable perspective on the problem, living as he does in Mexico. Check out this overview of the problem here; this prediction here about what the future is liable to bring (hint: no decrease in numbers); and this revelatory piece here about the view from Mexico. Interesting to learn that Mexico -- while demanding that the U.S. maintain open borders -- runs a sensibly restrictive immigration policy. Here's one archive of Wall's pieces; here's another. * Will Cohu's appreciation of Mickey Spillane and his immortal creation Mike Hammer, here, hits all the right notes. My own favorite Spillane quote goes (roughly): "I don't have readers. I have consumers." * Razib, Godless and the crew at GeneExpression (here) have been posting a lot of provocative and informative thoughts and reflections. Here's my current fave GNXP posting, Godless on admission by race at Harvard. Don't miss the comments. * Here's a pretty funny Amazon reader's list: a guide to overrated art. * Loving appreciations of that great cultural figure Julia Child are here and here. Here's a terrific (and even New Urban-ish) passage from Amy Finnerty: [Julia] addressed one glaring flaw in the American ethic -- our aversion to actually enjoying what we've labored for. In this she shifted the focus of pride at American tables away from the heartland cliché -- that of "plenty,"... posted by Michael at August 20, 2004 | perma-link | (5) comments

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Women and Food, Cont.
Dear Vanessa -- At the local gourmet-food superstore a short while ago, I noticed something I've often noticed before: Women in gourmet food stores are far more likely than men to help themselves to food-goodies as they shop. If a tasty foodthing is out there, available to the hand, a fair number of women will pick it up and feed it to themselves. There's no question of paying for the goodie; these women stroll around the store munching, as if this were just the way life is meant to be. I seldom see guys doing this. Not that I'm a representative guy -- far from it. But I do know that it'd never occur to me to help myself to an as-yet unpaid-for goodie. Well, not unless it's a sample that's being deliberately handed out. Might this difference in attitude have something to do with basic differences between the sexes, do you suppose? I've long suspected that men and women relate to food differently. (Here's a posting about women and baked goods, wherein I suggest that women essentially are baked goods. And here's a heartbroken posting about how women generally prefer food to sex.) My hunch says that women identify with food in some way that men don't. If there's anything to my suspicion, what might some of the explanatory factors be? Perhaps one is the "appetizing" thing. In the mating dance, guys don't need to be more than physically presentable, where women need to make themselves downright appealing -- unfair or not, this seems to be one of those basic facts of life. Perhaps because of this, women sense a kinship with food, which after all also usually needs dolling up to make it appealing. Perhaps women go around, at least part of the time, feeling like bons-bons -- not a common experience for a guy! The woman-as-foodstuff idea certainly works in reverse; guys often find a physically attractive woman mouth-wateringly appealing. A great old blues line or title, I forget which, goes like this: "I'm struttin' with some barbecue," which I'm pretty sure conjures up a picture of a guy proudly walking around with a sexily fleshy gal on his arm. Does the women-and-food thing go beyond this? I think it must. There's a certain look of triumph many women get when they walk into a restaurant that I never see on men's faces: "Life is now as it should be; the lady is about to be fed. Now, let's see how it can best be done." I've also noticed that women handle the food they're eating differently than men do -- more solicitously and tenderly, you might say even compassionately. The Wife, for instance, strokes, folds, and pets bread and cookies before wolfin' 'em down. And you can probably picture as well as I can the look on many a woman's face when she puts that first forkful of dessert in her mouth: naughtiness, smugness, ravishment ... It's the look of a blissed-out masturbator who's getting away... posted by Michael at August 19, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Dear Vanessa -- * Polly Frost's latest stories feature eroticism, horror, and satire -- sounds pretty tasty, as well as like a happenin' and fresh new thing. Here's a Nerve profile of Polly by Lynn Harris. * '60s icon and sex kitten Jane ("Je T'Aime") Birkin is now touring as the opening act for Lou Reed. The Guardian's Jason Solomons writes an engaging profile of the eccentric actress here. * George Hunka has masterminded a new groupblog on a good topic: artsblogging, here. He and blogmates Jessica Duchen and Helen Radice are fast out of the starting gate with postings on such topics as whether or not to dress up for an evening at the theater, and the need for more exchange and discussion among the arts. George's own firstclass blog is here. * Good lord: public-television fundraising drives, eh? Lynn Sislo has some suggestions for PBS here. * One of the web's many benefits is how easy it's made it to check out the work of photographers. Recently, I've been enjoying the photoblog (here) of Jonathan Gewirtz, who also word-blogs at Chicago Boyz, here. * I notice that a new Criterion boxed set of three Jean Renoir movies has just been released; it can be bought here. The three films -- "The Golden Coach," "Elena and Her Men," and "Paris Can-Can" -- share a theme: theater-seen-as-life/life-seen-as-theater. To spring for the not-cheap set or not? Hmm: I'm a major fan of "The Golden Coach," but it seems to me that you have to be in a pretty generous mood to be charmed by the other two films. (I semi-love them anyway.) But Criterion has adorned the package with many tempting goodies ... Heck, I dunno. Film buffs won't want to miss "The Golden Coach" in any case. * Jerry Adler's piece for Newsweek online is a reader-friendly intro to behavioral economics, here. At one point, Adler is discussing what game theory predicts vs. how people actually act: "The only category of people who consistently play as game theory dictates," Adler writes, "are those who don't take into account the feelings of the other player. They are autistics." (UPDATE: Arnold Kling comments on the Newsweek article here.) * Speaking of autism and econ, economics malcontents will want to browse the latest issue of the Post-Autistics Economics Review, here. I especially like the idea of using a measure of GNH (Gross National Happiness) alongside the more familiar GDP. * Surfing around Amazon just now, I noticed that a film I love was released on DVD last year: the Taviani brothers' 1982 Night of the Shooting Stars (buyable here, Netflixable here), a fable-like and panoramic view of one Italian village's experience of World War II. The film is one of the rare movies that operates at the highest level from the very first frame. It's got the magic of early Spielberg, a degree of stylization comparable to the best Fellini, and an intensity of beauty that's all its own. * Jim Kalb and... posted by Michael at August 18, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

The Harlem Globetrotters
Dear Vanessa -- Thanks to Steve Sailer (here) for pointing out this fab FoxNews visit (here) with basketball legend Daryl ("Chocolate Thunder") Dawkins, who tells it like it is about the current state of the sport. He's frank about the virtues and pitfalls of "black basketball" as well as "white basketball." Key Dawkins lesson: "In basketball and in civilian life ... freedom without structure winds up being chaotic and destructive. Only when it operates within a system can freedom create something worthwhile." And don't I wish that artsies would take heed of this wisdom. I recently heard a similar comparison between "black basketball" and "white basketball" from a black college prof on an episode of A&E's "Biography" that was devoted to the Harlem Globetrotters, by the way. It was a first-class documentary, as well as one that brought back wonderful memories. As a kid, I saw the 'Trotters a couple of times, and I can't remember many sports or entertainment events that have made me feel as silly/happy as their shows did. Did you know that, early on, the Globetrotters weren't just brilliant clowns, they really were the best players in the world? As Bill Cosby says at one point in the documentary (I paraphrase): "You gotta imagine Michael Jordan crossed with Eddie Murphy!" And did you know that, in the small Midwestern towns where the Globetrotters first toured, the 'Trotters were often the very first black people that these small-town white people had ever seen? Which means that the Harlem Globetrotters may well have had as much influence for the country's racial-understanding good as Jackie Robinson did. OK, I confess: I watched this hour-long show snuffling back tears of happiness, delight, and gratitude. Goose Tatum! Marques Haynes! Curly Neal! Meadlowlark Lemon! -- as far as I'm concerned, these are names that deserve culture-canonization right up there next to Olivier and Hepburn. Talk about performers who knew how to blend freedom and structure. A VHS tape of this wonderful show can be bought here. I was surprised to learn that the Globetrotters, bless 'em, still exist and still tour -- their own website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at August 18, 2004 | perma-link | (0) comments

Samuelson on Marketing and Politics
Dear Vanessa -- My wee contribution to the election debate this year is to try to get a few people to stop thinking in terms of Republicans vs. Democrats and to think instead in terms of Them (ie., the political class) vs. Us (ie., everyday people). This comes partly out of dismay with the candidates: a choice between a budget-busting, borders-opening Republican and a Democrat willing to contradict himself on the hour, every hour -- wow, aren't we the lucky voters? But it also comes out of a hunch that something odd has happened in the last couple of decades. My feeling is that the political class has decoupled itself from the population at large and now seeks only its own advantage. I don't want to be too naive about this -- has politics ever not been a dirty business? But the something that has happened in politics seems to me akin to what has happened in so many other fields: corporations have become sleek and rootless; movies are now made to support their marketing and franchising campaigns rather than vice versa; teachers' unions are hostile to educational improvement ... I suppose it could be said that we've all been set free to seek our own advantage. But doesn't it also sometimes seem that this "freedom" is really just license to treat each other horribly? What happens when the political class becomes just one self-interested monad among many others? Republicans may shade a bit one way and Democrats a bit another way, but what both parties shade massively towards is the interests of the political class itself -- a meta-special-interest group the rest of us would do well to be ultra-wary of. And as far as investing our hopes in their promises? Puhleeze. It seems to me infinitely more sensible to confine our political hopes to preventing the political class from doing too much damage. So let's hear it for letting our displeasure be known. Here's some confirmation of my hunch, a piece by the economics columnist Robert Samuelson. His theme is how marketing has overwhelmed the political process. Some excerpts: In the 2000 election, Americans were showered with 245,743 TV spots for George W. Bush and Al Gore ... Spending on TV spots this year will likely be double the 2000 level or higher ... Politics has adopted all the tools of modern merchandising—advertising, polling, telemarketing and demographic targeting. Conventions, which once selected a party's candidate, are now part of the marketing plan. Deliberately drained of controversy, they aim to sharpen the campaign's message and to reward fund-raisers and the party faithful ... By merging data files on voting behavior and TV-viewing habits, media buyers know how audiences differ. "[Dave] Letterman skews more Democratic, while [Jay] Leno is more Republican," says one consultant ... There's a constant quest to find new ways to reach voters. "I can send out 700,000 e-mails an hour," says the DNC's McAuliffe. The DNC has a database of 175 million names and has disgorged... posted by Michael at August 18, 2004 | perma-link | (19) comments

Watching as a buff...
Dear Michael, Sorry for my long absence; I've been reading along but apparently afflicted with blog block. I wondered, as I read your post about DVD commentary tracks and how they can sometimes be mini tutorials on how to make a movie, whether you, as a devoted film buff, can anymore watch a movie for pure enjoyment without silently dissecting it in your head? I was thinking, "I loved Kill Bill: Vol. 2! I bet Michael hated it -- or would have hated it if he had deigned to see it!" Also, I can recommend the commentary track on the superb Kirsten Dunst vehicle "Bring It On." Yours, Vanessa... posted by Vanessa at August 18, 2004 | perma-link | (3) comments

Monday, August 16, 2004

DVD Journal: "Unlawful Entry" and Commentary Tracks
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Vanessa -- How have you reponded to directors' commentary tracks on DVDs of movies? Until last night, I hadn't sat through an entire one. I'd sampled a fair number, but I never made it through. A director's commentary sounds like such a good idea; how better to learn about movies? Yet I've almost always wound up feeling like I'd wasted my time. Backstage anecdotes and on-mike horseplay can sometimes grab my interest; I remember enjoying the goofy commentary track for "Wild Things" for a few scenes, for instance. But it seems that few directors have much of interest to say about their actual work as filmmakers. But perhaps I'm a weirdo. What I want to hear about is how and why they made the filmmaking choices they did. I want to know about lenses, acting styles, visual design, editing strategies ... More generally, I gotta confess that I dislike on principle the way movie DVDs come stuffed with extras. Always happy to be pleasantly surprised, of course. But I find that the extras almost always detract from the moviewatching experience. Their presence as part of the package shoots holes in the fictional pretense; the movie package now isn't thought to be complete without a slew of extras. (Do you find, as I do, that recent technology shoots holes in understandings generally? Cellphones disrupt private and public space; reality TV stitches holes in the TV schedule, overwhelming conventional drama and comedy; web publication doesn't work well for fiction ... I wonder why this pattern should hold true.) I do understand that DVD extras represent selling points, and that lots of people like them. And I understand that for many people the fun of a movie isn't complete without the sales pitches, the backstage stories, the making-of reports, the interviews and gossip, and all the other whoopdedo. And, in many ways, a movie is often a phenomenon that goes beyond itself. But I find it a little creepy that the whoopdedo should be expected to be present on the movie-DVD itself. Its presence turns the film into a pretext for extras; the film becomes less a created world to be savored and experienced, and more like high-priced footage that�s the centerpiece of a digital extravaganza. Exceptions allowed for, of course: I enjoyed the short q&a with the director Catherine Breillat on the DVD of "Brief Crossing," for instance, a film I loved and blogged about here. Last night, though, I finally made it through the entire commentary track on the DVD of a movie -- the 1989 thriller Unlawful Entry (buyable here, Netflixable here). The film's director, Jonathan Kaplan, seems to have arrived at the commentary-recording session determined to let us know what it's like to make a suspense thriller, and listening to Kaplan talk while watching his movie unspool makes for an EZ and enlightening intro-to-movie-thrillers class. Kaplan seems delighted to play the role of "student of the art of cinema," and it's a treat to share... posted by Michael at August 16, 2004 | perma-link | (18) comments