A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Case for Chuck Hagel

Charlie Pierce makes it: 

Ever since that thoroughgoing, bean-counting, soulless bastard Robert McNamara was in charge of it, the Defense Department steadily has moved away from the notion that its primary constituency is the men and women in uniform. Certainly, to name one recent example, Donald Rumsfeld proved to be far more in love with his own brilliant theories on defense policies than he cared about the fact that we weren't sending enough poor sods in inadequate body-armor to carry them out. This is a problem that Chuck Hagel never will have.
Hagel is a grunt. He always has been. He always will be. He's one of the people who has to kick in the doors. He's one of the people who has to look gingerly around the corner. He's one of the people who had to live at war 24-7, and who walked through Indian country and nearly died there.

Read more: Chuck Hagel Defense Nomination - The Hagel Nomination - Esquire http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/chuck-hagel-defense-secretary-nomination-010713#ixzz2HM8eFuMf

Separated at Birth?

Friday, January 4, 2013

"To Be Publicly Mean and Stupid"

The reason I value Charlie Pierce's blog so much is the way he has of getting at the essence of things:

One of the last actions of the last useless majority of the House Of Representatives was to allow the Violence Against Women Act to wither and die ....  One of the first actions of the new useless majority of the House Of Representatives was to continue to fund legal actions in defense of the Defense Of Marriage Act. There is no reason to waste money on this kind of thing — The question of same-sex marriage is currently before the Supreme Court — except to be publicly mean and stupid.... This is the kind of thing to keep in mind whenever a member of the new useless majority goes on your electric teevee set to talk about The Deficit. They won't spend money to ease the lives of the old and the sick. But they'll spend it to be mean and stupid. The ignorance subsidy is untouchable.

I mean, has anyone since H.L. Mencken been so skilled at reducing a political stance to such a withering epigram? "They won't spend money to ease the lives of the old and sick. But they'll spend it to be mean and stupid."  

Thursday, January 3, 2013


When I first saw this famous faceoff of the Thomases, More and Cromwell, in the Frick Museum, I was very much on More's side, probably because of A Man for All Seasons. But now, having read Hilary Mantel's two novels about Cromwell, I'm beginning to think he was the more agreeable of the two. Still, Holbein seems to have liked More better than Cromwell. In any case, are there two more revealing portraits than these? 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

You Lie!

When it comes to language, I side with the descriptivists -- those who acknowledge that the English language is constantly in a process of change -- rather than with the prescriptivists -- those who believe that there are certain rules that must be followed even though hoi polloi have abandoned them. (Notice that I didn't say "the hoi polloi," which I have been taught is equivalent to saying "the the people." There are, after all, a few rules that I cling to, perhaps because knowing them gives me a slight ego boost. Like, I also know that "kudos" means "praise" and is therefore singular, and that there's no such thing as "a kudo." Except that the descriptivist in me recognizes that eventually there will be.)

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that word usage is a slippery thing, and that really it all comes down to what sort of audience you're addressing. For example, I fully accept the use of "hopefully" as a sentence modifier, as in "Hopefully, he will be here soon." But because I also know that there are a lot of people who insist that it's slovenly usage, I tend to avoid it, and write "We hope that ..." or "I hope that ..." instead.

I know, too, that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole, so I'll never write "John, Mary, and Edgardo comprise the rules committee" -- or worse, "The rules committee is comprised of John, Mary, and Edgardo" -- even though most people don't make the distinction.

I even avoid writing "He was disinterested in the conversation" when what is meant is that he was bored by or indifferent to it. I was taught that "disinterested" meant "impartial" or "unbiased," and not, as is probably meant here, "uninterested." (In fact, "disinterested" used to mean "uninterested," but then the prescriptivists got hold of it and decided the usage was improper.)

So I'm not such a stickler that when I run across a sentence modified by a "hopefully," or a composing "comprise," or a bored "disinterested," or even a "the hoi polloi" or a "kudo," I shudder and flinch. (Well, maybe inwardly, at least on the last one.) But there's one usage change that still grates: the disappearing intransitive "lie," as in, "I am going to lie down." Maybe it comes from having to chant in English class what used to be called the principal parts: "Lie, lay, lain, lying" and "Lay, laid, laid, laying." And from hearing the supercilious question, "Are you a chicken?" asked of anyone foolish enough to say, "I am going to lay down."  

The distinction between "lie" and "lay" is vanishing, and an intransitive "lay" is winning. I was reading a Lee Child Jack Reacher novel today, and read:
Reacher laid down again. 
And later,
Reacher laid back, stayed relaxed, stayed casual.
But oddly, quite a few pages later, a character says,
I've lain awake a hundred nights going over it.

"Lee Child" is actually a Brit named Jim Grant, so apparently the confusion over "lie" and "lay" isn't confined to this side of the Atlantic. And the confusion seems to be so great that the traditional intransitive "lain"  can coexist with the emerging intransitive "laid" within the same author's mind. (I once encountered an otherwise highly literate writer who was so confused on the "lie, lay" issue that he wrote, "I lied down for a nap.")

I wish the confusion didn't exist, and that we could just accept intransitive "lay, laid, laid, laying" at least on an equal footing with "lie, lay, lain, lying." On the other hand, the confusion once led to my employment, in the job that turned me from a failed academic to a moderately successful journalist. After not receiving tenure at the university where I was teaching, I applied to a local magazine for a copy-editing position. What got me the job was finding the sentence, "There is garbage laying in the alleys," and pointing out that it was incorrect. The sentence was in a column written by the magazine's publisher.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What I'm Reading

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I read Barnes's short novel in almost one sitting, not because it's a particularly compelling narrative, but almost because it isn't. British novels that begin with recollections of school days and early loves gone wrong are so common that I was impelled by a suspicion that "there must be more to it than this."

There is, of course, or the Booker people wouldn't have given it their prize. But whether there is quite enough to overcome the nagging sense that here is yet another work of fiction undermined by its narrative trickery is still an open question for me. Fairly early in the book, a character quotes a definition that he ascribes to a French historian named Patrick Lagrange (who is fictitious): "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." If you aren't alerted then that the novel is going to center on the distortions and omissions of memory, you haven't been reading enough contemporary fiction.

The crux of the novel is a letter that the narrator, Tony Webster, has forgotten ever writing: one to a friend who had taken up with a girl that Tony had been seeing. The letter, when Tony sees it again, 40-some years later, long after he has been married to and divorced from another woman and has settled into a quiet retirement, is a vicious denunciation of both the friend and his former girlfriend. The letter has had bitter consequences, of which Tony has spent his life unaware.
I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I did not recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception. 
He tries to divorce himself from the consequences of the letter -- as he says, he "was not its author now" -- but they have been so devastating that even though he has lived a quiet and satisfactory life, believing himself to be a good man, the letter serves as a bridge between his present self and his earlier one. He reflects,
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does; otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration.
The letter and its consequences cause him to try to view his life as a whole, but the disjunction between the self who wrote the letter and the self he perceives himself to be now remains. (At the same time, Barnes is playing a bit of a game by having a character in a novel reflect on the difference between character in a novel and character in life. As the professor would say: Discuss.)

The moral crux of the novel is evident. Tony tries to escape from one aspect of it, the supernatural:
Of course I don't -- I didn't -- believe in curses. That is to say, in words producing events. But the very action of naming something that subsequently happens -- of wishing specific evil, and that evil coming to pass -- this still has a shiver of the otherworldly about it. The fact that the young me who cursed and the old me who witnessed the curse's outcome had quite different feelings -- this was monstrously irrelevant. 
But on the other hand, he has to admit, "If life did reward merit, then I deserved shunning."

I value The Sense of an Ending for Barnes's willingness to pose a moral question: How much guilt should we assume for things we never intended to bring about and of which we were unaware? At the same time, I question whether it is less a novel than a fable crafted to serve as a case study in an ethics class.