Sunday, October 28, 2007

As I Myself Might Say

Among the books I'm reading is yet another that I want to recommend, not to everyone for their own reading, but to everyone who'll be buying a Christmas present or stocking stuffers for any budding young gentlemen this season. I picked it up and leafed through it at Jos A. Banks the other day and had to bring it home. As a Gentleman Would Say, by John Bridges and Bryan Curtis is meant to be, I think, more of a coffee table book than a reference work--entertaining and informative at the same time. It's not written to be funny, in the manner of the once bestselling Official Preppy Handbook, which invited that crowd and all its imitators to laugh heartily at themselves or risk being shamelessly laughed at. But it is frequently funny, primarily when it offers examples of what not to say. For instance, take this passage that I'm sure I'll never personally find useful, but is illustrative of the whole:


He does not say:
"Okay, then what about next Friday?"
"What's the matter? Am I being to pushy?"
"But I though you said you liked pro wrestling."
"Well, you certainly don't know what you're missing."

But he does say:
"I understand. Maybe we can do something together some other time."

In affairs of the heart, a gentleman attempts, above all else, never to appear desperate. If he senses that he is being given the cold shoulder, he does not continue in pursuit of a person who has little interest in his attentions. If he does sense that there is hope for a second chance, he waits a few weeks and then tries again, making sure not to refer to his previous bad luck.

The book is subtitled "Responses to Life's Important (and sometimes awkward) Situations," and has chapters such as, "On the Job," "Wining and Dining," "In Times of Sadness," and so on. The excerpt above comes from the chapter on "Affairs of the Heart."

It can't, of course, cover everything, nor does it need to. What's important is the mode of thinking it inculcates. Think of it, in its repeated contrasting of what not to say with what to say, as something of an antidote for the overdose of flippancy our culture is awash in through media such as VH1, MTV, text messaging, and so on. Somewhere in McCarthy, one of the characters states that all formal manners have as their goal the prevention of bloodshed. Here's a little book that's a step in the right direction.

I have at least one nephew who's a fine young gentleman already, but he can look forward to a copy of his own this holiday season.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Among the books I'm reading at the moment (having recently finished the last Harry Potter) is the new work by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Some books I work my way through and have little to say about. Some, I'll offer quotes from, or insights from, but with the caveat that it's not worth reading the whole work to get that little bit. This isn't one of those books. I enjoyed The Kite Runner. I'm enjoying this newer work even more.

Most writers have a forte (some don't, being universally mediocre in every respect, but the better ones do), a particular aspect of the craft in which they excel. Separate from that unique strength in their writing, most also have a particular theme they wish to explore, sometimes in just one work, sometimes across a lifetime of work. (Cormac McCarthy for instance, has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the existence of God with the depravity of man. Or, in the case of Philip Roth's, if man were not a sexual creature, Mr. Roth would have nothing to write about--even his lamentations on old age and death find a way to revolve around sex.) In the case of Dr. Hosseini, his greatest skills lie in the areas of storytelling--plot and narrative--and in the development and exploration of character. And it is the latter in which seems to lie his particular interest. Yes, he has set his stories in Afghanistan, and they are interesting, at least in part, for the glimpses they offer us of that war-torn country and the intersection of events there with the lives of the characters he creates. But setting a story in an interesting place doesn't make one an author worth reading, an author who works are likely to last.

What makes Dr. Hosseini worth reading is his fascination with human nature. With its complexity. With its resilience. In many respects, the aspects of human nature that fascinate Dr. Hosseini and motivate him to write, to explore, are opposite of those which drive McCarthy or Roth. Love (the variety of which sexuality would only be an expression rather than the whole) and guilt fascinate Dr. Hosseini. Misplaced, misguided, frustrated, deserved and un, absent from places that it should be and present in places you wouldn't expect it. And so, both his theme and his forte become character itself. Happy union for us.

The importance of the setting in all of this is not so much what it contributes to the quality of the novels, but that it makes the novels available to us. The stories and the characters therein would be just as compelling were they lifted out of Afghanistan and placed in Biloxi. Then again, I may be selling the setting a little short in saying that, for what Hosseini has done in these works, even more in the second, is to make the land of Afghanistan, the country itself, a character capable of both love and guilt. As such, with Afghanistan so ever-present in our headlines, the books have a compelling interest to publishers that they might not otherwise have possessed. I'm grateful for that. And any critique that realization implies is meant not for the author or his novels, but for the industry on which they depend. The works are worthwhile in their own right, perhaps even great. Whatever their success owes to their setting is incidental at best.

And the settings are especially poignant for me. I've been to Kabul. I've walked Chicken Street, with a boy no older than Hassan as guide and translator. I've shopped there for old weapons--Enfields from wars a century or more ago. When Hosseini's young protagonist reflects on the division of Kabul into sections ruled by rival warlords, I flash back to a conversation I had with an Afghan translator, Abdullah, in 2002, at the airport in Kabul, during which he recalled the very same thing, and hoped aloud that Western forces would remain in his country long enough to secure the peace until the people of Afghanistan could secure it for themselves. A generation, he predicted, would be needed. Time to educate a generation of women the education of whom the Taliban had considered anathema--a generation of boys bred mostly to the trigger. I've driven and walked the rutted streets of Bamiyan. I've stood beside tall poplars and gazed in awe across the green valley at the holes in the side of the cliff--huge, upright, reverse sarcophagi where once the Buddhas stood (and atop which Hosseini's characters stand), now gaping tributes to the scourge that was and is the Taliban. I've posed for a photo in the shadow of the fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, the Red City. I've been lost in the countryside after sunset, and driven through small villages where the face of Ahmad Shah Massoud still looked back from the sides of buildings. I've walked the ground in Jalalabad, and watched the traffic passing on its way to and from Pakistan. I found that country fascinating enough overall, that not long ago, I volunteered to return for a year in a job that would have not simply allowed me to see virtually all of that land, but obligated me to, and afforded me the opportunity to learn the language to boot. Unfortunately, the timing of the assignment and my own mandatory retirement prevented it.

I've not even finished Hosseini's newest work yet, but I can't imagine that anything in the second half is going to change my recommendation. Read it. Read it whether you care about Afghanistan or not. Read it for the glimpses it offers of the human heart, independent of culture, of setting, of time itself.

Chicken Street

Abdullah. An interesting convergence that only struck me now: an American whose given name means "bearing Christ" and an Afghani whose name means "servant of Allah."

The fortress of Shahr-i-Zohak, the Red City.

Looking across the valley at the empty hole where once a great Buddha stood.

Natalie Portman

I've been quiet for a bit. Not because I haven't been writing. I've been up late writing almost every night. But you can only write so much in so many different places or to so many different people. I started to title this entry "What I've Been Reading," and though this qualifies, I'll save that for a separate post.

Today's Parade contained a great little piece by Natalie Portman, titled simply, "What I've Learned (So Far)." Among those things she's learned was "Always Maintain a Sense of Hope."

Sometimes it’s hard to maintain a sense of hope. It’s impossible to know the outcome of anything: You have no idea whether the life you impact will go on to bring peace to the Middle East or will go blow up a building. All you can do is act with the best intention and have faith. Maybe it’s selfish, but I just don’t think it’s worth living if you don’t feel like you can change something. It’s a choice you can make: to have joy, to find joy and to spread joy.
I've spent much of my life being disappointed by pretty women with little depth. It will likely take me another lifetime or two to really learn not to expect physical beauty and internal beauty to be at least somewhat correlative. It's a lesson Ms. Portman doesn't really help with. Aside from being a talented actress (I've rarely come away from a film with her in it that I didn't think her contribution probably the most memorable thing about the entire effort--including the thoroughly depressing Closer, in which she held her own against equally beautiful and admirable Julia Roberts), she may be one of those rare people who's very existence makes it easier to believe in what she says. She makes it easier to hope that, in some cases at least, the two do go hand in hand.

Friday, October 19, 2007

If Everyone Cared

A few days ago, a friend was driving her 15-yr-old son home from school. On his notebook computer was a music video by Nickelback. She found it so moving she asked me to find it and see it. I found it moving enough to share with you. I've had the album since it came out (Nickelback has to be, pretty much, the ultimate guys' band on the air at the moment), but I hadn't seen the video. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Opinions on Science Fiction

A few days ago, I tossed out a subtle challenge, proposing that The Matrix was the best science fiction film of the 20th century and inviting alternative proposals. John deVille picked up the gauntlet. His nominees, originally offered in a comment, are reproduced below in toto, in blue, with my answers embedded.

Best sci-fi films? 2001, Blade Runner, Dark City, Altered States, Being John Malkovich, remake of The Fly, and The Thing all trump the warmed-over Lewis Carroll pop philosophy flick that is The Matrix.The Matrix is clever, beautifully photographed, with groundbreaking effects. But the messiah theme is subjected to far too many build-ups, resulting in an anti-climatic climax, and Reeves and Fishburne deliver wooden performances worthy of a CGI creation but not flesh and blood.

I have to respectfully disagree on a number of points here. Latched onto that whole rabbit hole thing did we. Not sure I've ever seen Lewis Carroll and pop philosophy strung together quite like that. :-)

Personally, I enjoyed both actors. But then, I detest (and I only use that word because I can't think of a stronger one) Jeff Goldblum. So whatever merits The Fly may have had as a movie, it lost me through casting.

At least The Matrix is self-critiquing of the whole messiah theme. Want a gross manipulation of that motif? See The Green Mile. No self-critique there. And all used to send the wrong damned message in a subtle enough way that nine out of ten people I've ever pointed it out to hadn't even realized how badly their emotions were being manipulated to make Susan Sarandon clones of them. I would have cried at the end with everyone else, but I was way too busy being pissed off at what had just been attempted on me and successfully perpetrated on everyone else in the theater.

2001 trumps The Matrix in terms of groundbreaking cinematography and concept as well as score and philosophical depth. Granted, there are deathly lulls but it succeeds as a work of art where The Matrix fails in that one might need or want to watch The Matrix twice but 2001 has far more captivating depth requiring multiple viewings.

2001 doesn't trump anything. Who the hell decided that Stanley Kubrick was a director? Here's an idea, if only we'd gotten Kubrick and Goldblum together for a film. Now there would have been something to see. But I can do better than mere personal invective. The sheer overratedness of Kubrick aside, I believe The Matrix surpassed 2001 in all three of the areas you mention. In cinematography, The Matrix was the first film to really take "bullet-time" photography in particular and CGI in somewhat less seminal ways, to their very edge. We see these things now in productions as mundane as commercials, but that first shot--with Trinity suspended in mid-air as the camera angle moves around her then continues the action--is something few of us who saw it will forget. The technology seems simple and mundane now, but not then. Score, I would argue, is simply a matter of taste. Certainly that of The Matrix is as strongly linked thematically to the movie as anything in 2001. Concept and philosophical depth? Give me a break! "What is real? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Reality is the central question here. I will venture that the Wachowskis are far deeper thinkers than Kubrick. (Of course, I can only venture that by ignoring the long downhill slide into intellectual mush that is the sequels. You'll note that I didn't say "the Matrix Trilogy." I avoided that, not only because the sequels belong to separate century, but also because, while fun, each is philosophically and intellectually less than its immediate predecessor.) Multiple viewings? I'm not tired of The Matrix yet, and it's been almost ten years and I've seen it countless times. Perhaps its greatest strength is its total lack of paradox. Name one more film about either time travel or virtual reality that doesn't trip over itself somewhere. Name me one place where The Matrix does.

Blade Runner doesn't have the groundbreaking effects but the pathos and acting of Ford, Hauer, and Sanderson deliver a solid punch. Scott's future urban landscape is genius. FWIW, I prefer the "corny" version with the voiceover to the "director's cut."

Love Blade Runner. Don't have anything bad to say about it. Probably the best shot you took in the whole salvo.

Dark City is one hell of a creepy yarn. It was what the Truman Show should have been. I'd put it on par with The Matrix.

Ooooh. Haven't seen it. Thanks. Now I know what to rent the next time I need a new sci-fi fix.

Altered States is corny but the concept still delivered what the best sci-fi does. So-so acting, creative effects, but one does have to like Ken Russell. I did; novelist and screenplay writer Paddy Chayefsky didn't and had his name removed from the credits. Either on par with The Matrix or a notch below.

At least "a" notch. Loved the movie. Not sure I'd consider it sci-fi though. Will say that it almost inspired me to give the isolation tank a try the last time I was in your neck of the woods. Can't remember the name of the place, but it's in downtown Asheville, downhill from the Mellow Mushroom pizza parlor. Was with my in-laws and didn't have the time . . . but I'll be back.

Being John Malkovich has none of the razzmatazz but is far more metaphysically interesting and challenging the old "what if we're all brains-in-a-vat?" problem. The use and execution of puppeteering to make points was far more captivating and moving that anything I saw in The Matrix which I found to be almost bereft of emotion. Who gives a shit whether a soulless lead and a soulless supporting cast beat the bad guys?

I'm sensing some real negative energy here, John. Let it goooooooooo. :-)

The always overlooked The Fly featured a virtuoso performance from Goldblum which Reeves is clearly not capable. His transformation was as gorgeous as it was terrifying and it closed with a wallop. The Matrix closes with a nod to the sequels, neither of which delivered because the set-up was philosophically lame.

Okay, you've used "virtuoso" and "Goldblum" together in the same sentence here, which, while an undeniably remarkable accomplishment, still makes no sense.

The Thing is a B movie, a goddamn good one. Great ensemble cast, with over-the-top cornball acting reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen. Carpenter's calibration of horror was genius backed up by a serviceable score. Give me a six-pack of PBR and I'll rewatch The Thing this afternoon over The Matrix.

I think, at this point, our transition from the genre of sci-fi to that of horror is more or less complete (to say nothing of where we've gone with the beer--I'm a Makeson man, myself). Not that the two can't mix (sci-fi and horror; not beer and near-beer). Alien is superb. And Aliens is one of the few sequels ever made that might arguably surpass the first in the series. After that though, we start downhill into the valley of sequel hell, in some sort of perverted race to the bottom with Rocky, who, I'm sad to say, is back in the lead. (You know, I actually joked about 15 years ago that my children would one day ask for $20 to see a Rocky sequel. I overestimated the effect of inflation on the price of a movie ticket, but not the resilience of the champ. Please God, let his next opponent take a .357 magnum into the ring and finish him. Hmmm. "And the nominees for Best Actor are Jeff Goldblum, Sylvester Stallone, and Barney Rubble." Q: How will we ever decide? A: Just give Paulie a vote.)

And would Fight Club count as sci-fi, because it clearly kicks The Matrix's sorry celluloid, single-serving ass, except I'm not supposed to talk about it.

:-) (It took me a minute because it's been a while.) But no, I wouldn't count it.

But I'll conclude here by saying thanks for taking the time to have an opinion. I may disagree, but anything from the keyboard of another hardcore Deadwood fan is at least worth making the effort to disagree with. Peace bro.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Kind of Reader Are You?

Not a fair test, really, for an English professor. For questions six and seven for instance, I needed a button that said "All of the first three above" (I've read all of the Harry Potter books, btw, and happily, none of the fourth choice for question six).

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Literate Good Citizen
Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Live First, Then Write About It

Life has been busy!

Saturday night at a Loreena McKennitt concert as part of her Ancient Muse Tour. What a beautiful artist and person! And what an incredible group of musicians. If you're anywhere near one her upcoming perfomances, go!

Sunday at a friend's neighborhood Oktoberfest, where I spent an hour or so in a great conversation with one of the neighbors and learned near the end of that conversation that his brother is the bassist for Rage Against the Machine. I think he was genuinely surprised when I said, "No kidding! They have a great track on the soundtrack from The Matrix." (Hands down, btw, the best sci-fi film of the 20th century. Period. And yes, I've seen all the classics I'm probably going to hear about in comments. Bring it.) That event closed off with about five of us standing in a circle and smoking cigars.

Monday was devoted to a 208-mile ride through the mountains with eight squadron mates. I sold my KZ-900 years ago, but you can rent Harleys, and it was worth every penny. The weather was as perfect as the company.

All in all, I don't feel all that bad for not getting around to the blog over the weekend. You gotta have a life if you're gonna have anything to write about.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Kaziah Hancock

A friend steered me to this video today. Her nephew, (an English major and fan of Blood Meridian, so clearly a man of impeccable tastes) is also a producer at MTV and working on some project involving this artist, who does incredible oil portraits of our fallen soldiers, at no cost to their families.


Thursday, October 4, 2007

Prof Pausch's Last Lecture

I've played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon before, and you'd think as many movies as I watch, I'd be better at it. This is sort of like that, only there are just two degrees of separation here.

I sat at a conference room table today at a sadly ill-attended meeting of the Faculty Forum at the academic institution where I taught for a total of eight years before moving over to the administration building. I haven't been in the classroom in over a year, but I still attend meetings of the faculty group, to which I still belong. Across from me sat Professor Barry Fagin. I wouldn't say we are friends, exactly, but we are certainly steadfast acquaintances. That is, though we come to the table from widely different disciplines (Computer Science and English), and seldom see each other away from these meetings, nonetheless, when we do run into one another, even off campus, we can still greet one another by name. And, more often than not, we find ourselves on the same side of most issues.

So, though I haven't yet watched the video to which I'm going to provide links here, Barry has, and Barry knew Professor Pausch well, and if Barry says, in his op-ed piece in today's paper, that I should see it, save it, and watch it with my kids, then I'll take his word for it.

For a small taste, here is a brief summary of news coverage, lifted from Prof Pausch's own site:

- There has been a lot of media coverage : The Good Morning, America piece is available here. Their followup piece (answering viewer's questions) is here. The Wall Street Journal article is here, their online video coverage is available here, their follow-up article is here, and a followup video is here. Steve Hartman and the CBS Evening News piece is here, with additional "only on the web" footage here.
The lecture is part of the Journeys series at Carnegie Mellon. And I look forward to having the time soon to watch it myself.

Here is the text.

Here is the video.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Deadwood really dead wood

So Deadwood is really over. So it goes. This from Cinematical via Kottke via Enrevanche:

I told McShane that as a fan, I felt completely cheated by this move on HBO's part. "You feel cheated? Imagine how I feel!" he replied. "We all do. We all do. It was one of those one-off jobs that you do which has got an extraordinary creative brain behind it, and it kept getting better, and the actors were great. It was a fabulous place to be and work. It was a workshop cum theater cum film. It was an extraordinary time. But everything has to come to an end, babe." So, there you have it.
It's still the best thing I've seen on TV in the last four years. If you haven't seen it, now's a good time to rent all three seasons. And be sure to watch the special features that come on the last disc for Season One.