Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

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Saturday, December 20, 2003

Anthony Lane is an extremely charming man: his movie reviews for The New Yorker are entertaining, witty, and fun to read. I've recently been reading a collection of his reviews and essays and I just found this London Telegraph interview with Lane (via Bookslut). It's a fun read that gives you a slightly better sense of Lane as a writer.

I never know what to make of Lane as a reviewer: his wit often seems to obscure the fact that he doesn't have anything interesting to say about the movies he's reviewing, but his writing can be fun nonetheless. (I may describe both of my impressions of Lane's writing in more detail when I have his book handy.) As a result, he seems like a fun critic to turn to when you want a quick and entertaining description of what a movie is like (complete with snarky comments and random amusing observations), but he's not a reliable source of intelligent commentary. But a lot of people I know seem to think that there's more to him than that...

The interview did answer one question I've had. Sometimes his reviews include random observations that seem almost too good to be true--could he have just made them up? Lane describes his work at The New Yorker:

I tend to send my copy in on deadline, which by New Yorker standards is tacky. It has to go through three or four proofs. The fact-checkers proof; the grammarians proof. And it is amazing. Someone does go to see the film, to make sure I'm not lying. If I'm reviewing a Tim Burton film and I say that Ewan McGregor's wearing a bright blue shirt, they'll say to me, 'It's more like bright turquoise'. But you should get it right, especially if you're going to have some fun with it. Otherwise it's cheating. The New Yorker is the only place in the world where you can pull a piece to change a comma to a semi-colon. It's a haven for the pedant. I love it.

I should have known that The New Yorker's famous fact-checking department wouldn't allow him to make things up...

Fun with Lord of the Rings merchandising! (via Cryptic Elliptic)

Robert McNamara: still lying? In Slate, Fred Kaplan argues that the former defense secretary is continuing to give a misleading and self-serving account of his service in the Kennedy administration, as evidenced by Errol Morris's new film.

John Franklin was an interesting man. According to an article in The London Review:

John Franklin (1786-1847) was the most famous vanisher of the Victorian era. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14, and fought in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. When peace with the French broke out, he turned his attention to Arctic exploration, and in particular to solving the conundrum of the Northwest Passage, the mythical clear-water route which would, if it existed, link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans above the northern coast of the American continent. The first expedition Franklin led to the Arctic was an arduous overland journey from Hudson Bay to the shores of the so-called Polar Ocean east of the Coppermine River. Between 1819 and 1822, Franklin and his twenty-strong team covered 5550 miles on foot. Their expedition was a triumph of surveying - they managed to chart hundreds of miles of previously unknown coastline - but their inexperience in polar travel and inadequate supplies meant that the journey back to civilisation, across the 'Barren Ground', turned into a catastrophe. Food ran out while they were still days from safety, and the men were forced to eat lichen, their belts and their boots (which they boiled up to make leather soup). Nine men died of starvation. One of the French-Canadian guides, suspected of cannibalism, was executed.

There followed a career as a travel writer and salon-goer ('the man who ate his boots' was Franklin's tag-line), a second long Arctic expedition, and a controversial spell as Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Then, in May 1845, Franklin set off with two ships - the Erebus and the Terror - and 129 men on the voyage that would kill him. In July, the convoy was seen by two whalers, entering Lancaster Sound. Nothing more would be heard of it for 14 years. Had the ships sunk or been iced in? Were the men dead, or in need of rescue? Or had they broken through to the legendary open polar sea, beyond the 'ice barrier'? Among the many responses to the Franklin Affair were Jules Verne's Voyages et Aventures du capitaine Hattéras, a poem by Swinburne, a little-known series of paintings of the Erebus and the Terror by Turner, and a melodrama called The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins and produced by Dickens, with 'authentic' Arctic costumes for the explorers, and paper snow shredded and scattered onto the stage from above by 'snowboys'.

The subject of the review was a new translation of Sten Nadolny's German novel The Discovery of Slowness, which "has been named as one of German literature's twenty 'contemporary classics', and [...] has been adopted as a manual and manifesto by European pressure groups and institutions representing causes as diverse as sustainable development, the Protestant Church, management science, motoring policy and pacifism." How does a historical novel get so many diverse fans? Read the review to find out. (Short version: its metaphor of--and message about--"slowness" appeals to those who dislike "the high-speed culture of postmodernity.")

Meanwhile, a Washington Post review discusses a historical novel about the Hottentot Venus by the woman who sued Steven Spielberg for plagiarizing her book about the Amistad.

In The New York Times, Nichola Kristof discusses children's books on Islam and Daniel Mendelsohn reviews a thriller about the destruction of Pompeii.

Can we save the world by treating it like a business? Some "social entrepreneurs" think so, acccording to this Emily Eakin article.

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, the co-authors of an upcoming biography of Robert Oppenheimer, argue that the Smithsonian is being disingenuous in its new Enola Gay exhibit. (reproduced at HNN)

Friday, December 19, 2003

Sometime I'll describe my reaction to The Return of the King in more detail (or at least in more coherent form), but I think I've already used up my designated blogging time for a few days (while my girlfriend is in Boston). For now, read Tim Burke's critique of the movie, which I agree with almost completely (though my emphasis might be slightly different) and which is far better written than mine.

Is the work of Philip Pullman blasphemous? The Independent interviews both Pullman and the director of a play based on His Dark Materials.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

My preliminary assessment of Peter Jackson's Return of the King: it's a really good movie, but it's the weakest film in the series.

First, some good points. The movie was amazing visually: Minas Tirith and Mordor were impressively realized, and some of the special effects--like Shelob and Gollum--were excellent. Peter Jackson does a really good job of ensuring that all of the battles in the series are distinct from each other. Sean Astin's performance as Sam was superb, and Ian McKellen's portrayal of Gandalf was just as good as in the previous movies. The scene where Eowyn fights the Witch King of Angmar was really good. The movie did a really good job linking the diverse story strands in the first half--making them seem like part of the same story, not like different action sequences. (The scene where Pippin lights the beacon was a good example.) Frodo, Sam, and Pippin played large roles in the action--the movie didn't seem as Aragorn-centered as The Two Towers. Finally--and perhaps most importantly--the film did a great job with some wonderful and iconic moments from Tolkien. I loved seeing Merry and Pippin sitting and smoking in Isengard when Gandalf and company rode up, seeing the final confrontation between Gollum and Frodo, watching Gandalf ride off with a shining staff to help protect Faramir as he returned from Osgiliath, and seeing Sam's shadow scare the orcs as he climbed up the tower in Minas Morgul. It was thrilling to see some of my favorite moments from the book come alive on screen. The Return of the King might have been the smoothest and best executed film in the series, and I can imagine someone who isn't a fan of Tolkien's books preferring it to the first two movies in the esries.

I had two major criticisms, however. First, Frodo and Sam's journey into Mordor seemed far too easy and quick. The pair have difficulty making it through Shelob's lair, as expected, but Sam frees Frodo from the orcs in just a few minutes, and I can only remember two scenes between their escape from the tower at Minas Morgul and their arrival at Mount Doom: first they see a massive orc army in their way (before it marches to war), and then the eye of Sauron nearly catches sight of them as they cross the plains of Gorgoroth. Mordor should seem like a larger, more expansive, more dangerous place.

More importantly, the whole story line in which the weight and power of the ring increase as the hobbits near Orodruin is almost completely lost. Soon after Gollum finds Frodo and Sam at the bottom of Mount Doom, for example, Frodo runs up the stairs and into the nearby gate. But shouldn't the ring be such a great burden that Frodo can't just get up and run? Shouldn't the ring be resisting Frodo's efforts to bring it to the Cracks of Doom? Shouldn't Frodo be physically drained, to the brink of death? in the film version of The Return of the King, Frodo merely looked exhausted from a long journey. His physical state (and the growing resistance of the ring) should have been far more evident. (Peter Jackson missed a chance to highlight the growing weight of the ring--and to develop Sam's character--after Shelob attacks Frodo. In the book, Sam takes the ring, realizes its strength, and is tempted to go off by himself to fight orcs or to destroy the ring on his own. In the end, of course, he resists temptation and rescues Frodo. In the movie, however, none of this tension is present: instead, Sam merely rescues Frodo and then hands him the ring.) Destroying the ring ultimately seems too easy--the obstacles within Mordor seem too small, the physical condition of the hobits doesn't quite seem desperate enough, and the ring itself should have appeared far more burdensome and weighty. As a result, the quest itself seems smaller and less significant.

[Incidentally, I didn't expect the full subtlety of the journey to Mordor to be reflected in the film. For instance, in the book's penultimate confrontation between Frodo and Gollum, the bearer of the ring warns his attacker that "If you touch me ever again, you will be cast yourself into the fires of doom." I suspect that this is more than just foreshadowing--my own feeling, based on past readings of the book, is that Frodo was actually using the ring against Gollum, and that the ring thereby ensured its own destruction. The ring wasn't just a trinket that made its bearer invisible, after all--it was a weapon that allowed its bearer to reshape reality according to his will. If I recall correctly, the book says that the ring appeared as a circle of fire during this confrontation and that Frodo's voice spoke from within that circle--suggesting that something out of the ordinary was going on. I didn't expect subtleties like this to appear in the movie, but I did hope that the ring's dread power and weight would be shown more fully.]

Secondly, the battle at Minas Tirith--though visually impressive--was much less emotionally involving than the fight at Helm's Deep. It seemed that less was at stake: there was less of a personal side to the battle, in part because only a handful of familiar characters were involved in the defense of the city from within. We knew Gandalf, Pippin, and Faramir, of course--but far too much of the battle involved nameless Gondorian soldiers fighting with orcs. It was fun to watch, but I found it hard to care about what happened. After all, certain key scenes--like Gandalf's confrontation with the witch king--were gone. What's more, I didn't feel like the progression of the battle seemed as natural as the progression of the fight at Helm's Deep: the movie interspersed lots of scenes of random fighting (as the orcs moved up to different tiers of the city) with quick appearances by familiar characters, until the Rohirrim and the army of the dead arrived. The scenes outside the city--where Theoden, Eowyn, Merry, and the Rohirrim came to the aid of the city--were more appealing, I thought.

In general, the movie's biggest problem was its compression of the plot. With more time, Peter Jackson could have developed the Mordor storyline better, adding more pyschological depth to the experiences of Frodo and Sam. He could also have strengthened the battle scenes in Gondor, giving them a more personal feel. Finally, certain parts of the movie--say, Gandalf and Pippin's ride to Minas Tirith or Denethor's conversation with Gandalf--didn't seem too much longer than in the preview. (I exaggerate slightly, but not much: I felt like I'd already seen certain scenes of the film.) Now I'm really looking forward to the extended edition of the movie!

The movie's departures from the book bothered me less this time than with either of the last two films: there was nothing as egregious as the trivialization of Faramir and the near-death of Aragorn (from The Two Towers) or the really annoying Rivendell scenes (from The Fellowship of the Ring, which portrays the council of Elrond as a petty squabble that randomly reaches a decision and makes both Elrond and Gandalf act out of character.) (I wished that most of the movie had taken place in darkness, as in the book: it would have seemed more faithful to Tolkien and would have made the scene when Gandalf confronts the Witch King, the Rohirrim arrive, and dawn breaks all the more effective. Luckily, I wasn't taken by surprise by this development since I'd seen the previews.) I disliked The Return of the King's treatment of Arwen's decision to become a mortal (why was her fate tied to Sauron's?) and of Denethor's personality (he seemed like a comic book villain transferred to a bad soap opera, though at least he had a cool voice.) But character development took the backseat to action in this movie. In general this was a shame, but at least this helped to minimize the flaws I've just mentioned.

A caveat: I may well modify my opinion of the movie after later viewings. The Two Towers has grown on me over the last year: it's probably my favorite of the three, but I initially preferred The Fellowship of the Ring. It can be hard for me to judge these movies as I view them, since every change from the book (even minor changes in dialogue) distracts me a little when I first notice them. Nothing in these comments should be taken as overly negative: I loved The Return of the King, even though I felt that its two predecessors were more powerful and more personally engaging. The Return of the King was the least impressive part of the trilogy, but it wasn't a disappointment.

[I'd planned to develop these comments a little more, but I have an annoying headache. I'll probably comment more on the movie after seeing it again sometime after Christmas.]

A "modern epic": the lawsuit over Winnie the Pooh.

The Washington Post has more on Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the mixed-race daughter of Strom Thurmond.

Roy Strong considers the history of Christmas dinner in a New York Times op-ed piece.

In The National Post, Jeet Heer discusses J.R.R. Tolkien and his experience in World War I.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Is everybody picking on Rosa Parks? (via the History News Network)

Michael Dirda discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's universe of inspiration in today's Washington Post.

This National Review Online article about John Rhys-Davies (who plays Gimli) was kind of interesting. The Weekly Standard, meanwhile, isn't terribly enthusiastic about The Return of the King.

In the 1970s, The Atlanta Constitution began a profile of one of Georgia's most famous writers with the words, "Erskine Caldwell. There. We've said it. Not so very long ago any Georgian pronouncing that name might have been run out of the state on a rail. If he were lucky." In The New York Times, Douglas Brinkley discusses Caldwell's life and reputation in the centennial of his birth.

The Telegraph discusses Saddam Hussein's last novel! (via ArtsJournal)

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

" 'Tolkein's Women' is one of those titles that always appears on lists of hypothetical World's Shortest Books," notes The Guardian, which has nevertheless published an article on the subject.

In These Times reports on the "missing history" of America's relationship with Saddam Hussein. Did the Carter administration give Saddam a "green light" in the Iran-Iraq war, for example? Did the Clinton administration cover up past presidents' illegal arms deals?

An unfinished Aubrey-Maturin has been found in the papers of the late Patrick O'Brian. It may or may not end up getting published...

Studying folklore is cool. Even if you worry your daughter by buying up lots of occult books!

David Edelstein really likes The Return of the King. I won't bother linking to very many reviews, but I was especially glad to see this one.

Russian nationalism: is it on the rise?

The Washington Post also published an interesting article on Saddam Hussein's hiding place. I was amused by this comment by one of the Americans at the site: "I expected it to be neater at least." I was also fascinated to read what books Hussein had handy: a book on interpreting dreams, volumes of classical Arabic poetry titled "Discipline" and "Sin," and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment."

Update Michael McFaul analyzes the rise of Russian nationalism in Slate.

Reviewers have been gushing over the new FDR biography by Conrad Black--a conservative media mogul who nevertheless seems to love America's New Deal president. Jay Parini, however, notes that Black's portrait of FDR is incomplete and offers an explanation:

Biography is, of course, a form of autobiography, and Black repeatedly portrays Roosevelt as a conniving, ambitious man who invariably saw how to get the better of his competitors. This biography is a tale of clever feints, dirty deeds, shrewd gestures and vengeful moves. There is some truth in this portrayal, yet Black is far too eager to praise FDR as a self-promoter. The man did, after all, engineer the new deal. He declared his era "the age of the common man", and he deserves credit for many of its liberal and democratic aspects.

Black fails to appreciate the genuine importance of the new deal to average Americans.

I'm curious about this book: Parini's view of the book sounds like more of what I'd have expected than some of the other reviews I've seen.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Today I spent several more hours than I'd planned in Chicago when my flight to Boston was cancelled. (Luckily, I was rescheduled for a flight that left just two hours later and I'm now home in Boston.) Lucky person that I am, I thus had the chance to spend quite a long time getting to know O'Hare a little better!

Posting will probably be more irregular over the next couple weeks than it's been lately, though I plan to keep updating the site. For now, here are some fun links:

More some other time...

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Fred Kaplan asks a fun question in today's New York Times: What are the greatest DVDs never made?

Something I did not know: the original Serenity Prayer (you know, "God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other") was written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. As a profile in the Boston Globe ideas section points out, Niebuhr's true legacy is less well-known than this prayer.

There's other good stuff in today's ideas section. One short article describes how ideological publishers are entering the children's literature business--though I wish the piece had spent more time analyzing the contents of the new books and the motives of the publishers. A Douglas Brinkley article, meanwhile, describes a surprising episode in the history of the Vietnam War. In 1971, when a young John Kerry became prominent as the leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War, the Nixon administration sought to find a pro-war veteran who could be the anti-Kerry. Who did they select? Armistead Maupin, who would go on to write the novel Tales of the City. History, it seems, is never predictable.