Wednesday, February 28, 2007

...He was leashed (a detail omitted in the log but recorded by investigators) and made to “stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to a dog.” He was told to bark like a happy dog at photographs of 9/11 victims and growl at pictures of terrorists. ...The interrogators quizzed him on passages from a book entitled, “What makes a Terrorist and Why?,” that asserted that people joined terrorist groups for a sense of belonging and that terrorists must dehumanize their victims as a way to avoid feelings of guilt at their crimes.

--"Medical Ethics and the Interrogation of Guantanamo 063"; via Sean Collins. The descriptions of sleep deprivation and manipulation of temperature are also very much worth reading, since these are techniques people often minimize and defend.
...One way of looking at the Old Testament is as a simple story: God makes man (Genesis 1-2), God loses man (Genesis 3), God tries to woo man back (Genesis 4-Malachi 3).



...The first human words quoted in Genesis are of a man's delight at his wife. The last human words quoted in Revelation are of a woman's delight at her husband. Christ's marriage with the Church restores the unity intended from the beginning.

Mankind's first liturgical act produced a human victim. So does (so must, you might say) the final liturgical act. (Which is why, I suppose, the Church's liturgy cannot be other than a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice. "It is finished," as He said, and if we are doing something else or something more, then we are in some way continuing the line of insufficient liturgies offered between Abel's death and Jesus'.)


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Thursday, February 22, 2007

THREE LINKS: 1. 101 projects for artists and illustrators. I'm having a lot of fun recasting these as writing exercises--designing a magazine cover on a current news event would become writing a New York Post headline.... Basically, what exercises like this train you to do, I think, is to notice things you'd otherwise overlook--to consider every kind of art a possible source of inspiration. Via Journalista.

2. Nat Hentoff writes:
...In 2002, Arar, a software engineer and citizen of Canada, was kidnapped and flown by the CIA to Syria, where for 10 months he was held in an underground cell seven feet high, three feet wide, and six feet deep ("like a grave," he said). The persistent tortures he underwent finally forced him to make a false confession of connections to Al Qaeda.

On his release, Syrian officials admitted there was a total lack of evidence against him. Then, after a two-year inquiry and its 1,200-page report by a Canadian commission--in which the United States refused to participate--Dennis O'Connor, the chief justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal, said, "I'm able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada." ...

On December 7, 2006, the commissioner of the RCMP, Giuliano Zaccardelli, resigned because he had mishandled the case, saying he had "made a mistake" in not being aware of the false information the RCMP had given the CIA.

In this country, you will not be surprised to learn, no one--at the CIA, the Justice Department, or in Dick Cheney's office of "dark arts"--has resigned or admitted any error at all.

Instead, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked at a press conference whether the Justice Department might at least offer Arar--who can't find a job and still suffers from the effects of his stay in the grave-like Syrian cell--an apology. Astonishingly, since Arar's ordeal has been reported in detail in mainstream American newspapers as well as in the foreign press, Gonzales actually said: "We were not responsible for Mr. Arar's removal to Syria. I'm not aware that he was tortured, and I haven't read the [Canadian] commission report. He was initially detained because his name appeared on terrorist lists, and he was deported according to our immigration laws."

The attorney general did not mention that his Justice Department approved the removal of Arar or the special accommodations for Arar in a CIA plane, bound not for Canada, where he is a citizen, but for Syria's torture chambers. And Gonzales has yet to answer the insistent questions on that brutal rerouting from senators Leahy and Arlen Specter.
more (via Mark Shea)

3. Washington Post story on the DC Archdiocese's promotion of Confession--ads, how-to guides, extended confessional hours, and more. Via Amy Welborn.
...Regular celebration of this sacrament [of Penance and Reconciliation, alias "Confession"] will help you form your conscience; it will give you strength in your daily fight against sin; and it will help you to gain the full freedom that is yours as children of God. ...

Let us remind our culture of people like Blessed Luis Magna Servin, one of our newest American blesseds, a devoted husband and father, martyred in Mexico in 1928. Facing a firing squad, he was able to speak words of forgiveness to the soldiers about to execute him: “I pardon you and I promise you that on arriving in the presence of God you are the first ones I will intercede for. Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Santa Maria de Guadalupe!”

--Abp. Gomez of San Antonio's pastoral letter on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (via Amy Welborn b/c I can't open PDFs on this computer, but the entire letter is here)
The struggle between Japan and China was always a fight between brothers within the "Asian Family." ...It had been my belief during all these days that we must regard this struggle as a method of making the Chinese undergo self reflection. We do not do this because we hate them, but on the contrary we love them too much.
--General Matsui Iwane, quoted in Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

The Rat gave me this book a few years ago, and I'm really glad I finally got around to reading it. A harrowing history of savage cruelty, incredible courage, and politically-expedient amnesia.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

...In Christian nomenclature, the so-called “humiliating names” or “shameful names” form a distinctive group. These names, when not defamatory, were sometimes used by some faithful as a life-long act of modesty, precisely because of their unpleasant significance…

more (via Amy Welborn)
THIS STORY OF TREES IN NIGER strongly reminds me of Hernando de Soto's excellent The Mystery of Capital.
THE THIRSTY MUSE: TIM POWERS, THE STRESS OF HER REGARD. Just finished the third novel I've read from this excellent dark fantasist. I had more problems with this one than with Declare or Last Call: For the first time ever with this guy, I thought occasional sentences were simply overwritten; the structure didn't always work for me; and at times the "he intuitively understood that the magic worked in way X and not way Z" stuff got intrusive and handwavey. Also, I'm at a disadvantage, because on the top level this is a novel about the Romantic poets dealing with vampires, and I am not immediately inclined to care about the Romantic poets. Write me a book about Philip Larkin dealing with vampires!

But. Once again, this is a fantasy of salvage, in which the characters pay terrible costs. The underlying idea of the book reminded me strongly of a bit of writing advice I read once: "When you don't know what to do with your plot, take your character and figure out what would be the absolute worst thing to befall this particular person. Then do that."

I really, really liked how Powers portrayed the shifts of strength and weakness in his characters, the stiffening of resolve and the exhausted surrender. It's easy to write about the moment of declaration, much harder to write about the temptations and backsliding and grueling loneliness of life afterward.

I also felt like the emotional payoffs were more evenly-distributed throughout the book than they were in Last Call (and yeah, I realize this cuts against my uncertainty about the book's structure). I'm glad I read this, and I'd definitely recommend it (after you read Declare, though!).

And yes: I love the title.
IT IS THE BEATING OF THAT HIDEOUS HORSE!: (I'm so sorry. Can you tell I've been waiting months to use that headline?)

Some thoughts on Eyes Wide Shut--a movie, I should say, that I'm still mulling over. It can't be dismissed, even if my ultimate judgment remains "tries hard, finds subject difficult." I apologize, once more, for the length of this.

First, The American Scene links to Lee Siegel's defense of the movie. The first half of it isn't addressed to me, since I was well-served by Sean Collins's previous discussion of the movie (I'm pretty sure that's why I Netflix'd it) rather than ill-served by hype and anti-hype. But I thought this was right-on and worth highlighting:

...In the novel, the password Bill uses to gain entrance to the orgy is "Denmark." In the movie, it is "Fidelio." Remarkably no critic I've quoted even brought up the password. This is a pretty bad lapse for reviews that called Kubrick's meditation on marriage an empty aesthetic exercise, since the opera Fidelio is Beethoven's hymn to conjugal love. Indeed, Kubrick structures his film with gorgeously subtle references to Fidelio and Christmas and Ovid and Homer though none of the critics here interpreted any of these allusions either. Nothing of the sort exists in Schnitzler's tale.

review is here

Siegel also says this:

...Our tame middle-class critics so wanted Kubrick's orgy to be dark and dangerous and full of sexual energy, but Kubrick wanted to show that sex without emotion is ritualistic, contrived, and in thrall to authority and fear. He was too wild for them. Everyone droned on about how unerotic Kubrick's orgy is, but no one talked about how intensely erotic is Bill's fantasy of Alice
making love with the naval officer. It is so erotic because Alice is the object not only of Bill's desire but also of his love.

I think the first point is probably right (and therefore I was wrong to want the orgy scene to have the lambent eroticism of the best parts of O), but I didn't find the Alice-fantasy scenes erotic at all. The black-and-white felt cliched; the whole thing did. That actually worked for me--I'm thinking that jealous fantasies, like most projections of the self onto the beloved, are usually cliched.

There's lots of other close-reading-y stuff in Siegel's review, some of it acute and some of it... well, maybe. It's very much worth reading (despite its defensiveness) if you are interested in the movie.

I agree with Sean that we've probably reached the "agree to disagree" point (although I am still mulling). I do want to say two (relatively) quick things, the first a clarification of a place where I think my poor phrasing gave the wrong impression and the second an acknowledgment of a place where Sean is probably right about our divergent reactions to the movie. (Oh, and he shouldn't feel weird about bringing up my underlying beliefs--I totally agree with him that our differences there are part of what's going on here.)

The first: I think my second post, especially, at times implied something I don't believe on either a religious or an aesthetic level: that children are what makes marriage real. On a religious level, this isn't my belief. (I was reminded of something I noticed during those theology of the body seminars I went to over the summer--when Jesus points to Adam and Eve as models of married life, He's pointing to a marriage that doesn't, as yet, have children. They do eventually--Cain, founder of cities!--but they serve as models for men and women before that happens.) On an aesthetic level, I definitely think you could remove Helena from Eyes Wide Shut and still have an earthquake in the marriage be big enough for the impact the movie wants.

My point was more that once you introduce Helena, you have to use her either mechanistically or symbolically, and the movie chose the former. She's a token to raise the stakes of infidelity at the outset, and she's a reward at the end, but she isn't affected by her parents' discord and she doesn't affect them; and I think that's both untrue-to-life and a missed narrative opportunity.

In the hypothetical EWS-without-Helena, I am pretty sure the final lines would still feel like mutual self-absorption to me. Some bad alchemy of dialogue/concept and performance made it come across as wish-fulfillment (this may just be me, but I felt like Kidman's voice even went kind of candy-colored at the very end), a return to status quo ante, an attempt to resolve the problem of sex by ignoring it. What Mrs. Dr. proposes is both necessary and radically insufficient for addressing what they've been through. I didn't buy that she would suggest it so soon, and I also thought the movie didn't recognize its insufficiency. The weird irrelevant-presence of Helena only heightened the underlying problems with the scene.

Second thing: Sean suggests that we diverged on the movie because he was reading its ending as a depiction of guilt and shame and I was reading it as a narrative about sin. That might be a big part of it, yeah. It's possible we're using words in different ways, here, but I think part of my problem is that in my view shame (especially) often traps people, forces a kind of miserable ingrowing of the personality, a self-swallowing that's both terribly painful for the person undergoing it and totally useless to himself and anyone around him. The language of sin, by contrast, implies the possibility and requirement of repentance and redemption; a particular person may not fulfill that requirement, but it's still embedded in the language.

And so while I saw Dr Harford as consumed by shame in his breakdown, that to me is not a state of mind that leads to resolution (or anything good!), and so I was disconcerted to see it (and its characteristic absence of actions of repentance, vs. expressions of misery) presented as the means to a renewed marriage....

I know I said before that my problem was Cruise's performance--he wasn't amazing enough to sell me on repentance-without-change--and now I think I'm saying something slightly different, that no matter how good his performance I still would have read it as shame rather than penitence. I'm not sure which is right; maybe both.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"BLOG FOR ALL THINGS SQUID": Via Ratty, of course.

Of all the names I've been called in my life, "Madam Chairsquid" is one of them.

*waves tentacles menacingly*

Sunday, February 18, 2007


It has been only a few months since Zangmo and her friend fled Tibet on foot over the Himalayas to this squat, block-shaped center for Tibetan refugees in India. The two women had been imprisoned along with a group of other nuns, some for as long as sixteen years. They were first arrested in 1990 for staging a protest in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to demonstrate their outrage over China's continuing presence in their native land. As the women chanted "Free Tibet," Chinese police moved quickly, knocking them to the ground and dragging them to jail before their protest could attract attention. Inside the prison, Chinese authorities subjected the nuns to a brutal routine. "Police stuck electric prods into my vagina and then hung me from the ceiling," Zangmo says softly. Her voice doesn't waver, but she looks away. Some of her friends lost consciousness as soon as guards pushed the cattle prods inside them, but Zangmo remained alert throughout the torture. "I was totally, totally frightened," she says.

Police eventually transferred the women to Drapchi, the most feared prison in Lhasa. According to human rights organizations like the International Campaign for Tibet, there are hundreds of political prisoners in Tibet, the majority of them Buddhist clergy. Scores have died from torture at the hands of Chinese authorities: electric shock, hanging, forced blood extraction.

"They tried to pull my arms out of my sockets, and beat my legs and arms with metal bars and shocked me," recalls Phuntsog Nyidron, another nun who was imprisoned at Drapchi. "I was worried they could easily kill me." After repeated beatings, a monk named Lobsang Choephel hanged himself at Drapchi, his body dangling from the iron bars of his cell.

The punishment was most severe for those who refused to give up their faith. "In Drapchi, there were numerous demonstrations," Zangmo says. One day, four nuns refused to renounce their Buddhist beliefs in front of the Chinese guards. "They were beaten until they died." Zangmo stares at the floor and starts to cry, her voice breaking. "They died together." [...]

In public, China has announced new policies promoting tolerance of Buddhism. Beijing has lavished funds on restoring the Potala Palace, for example, and thrown open monasteries to tourists. But across the city from the Potala, a senior monk living in a crumbling earthen hut describes what is really happening. "Plainclothes security are all over the monastery," he tells me.

"There's never a time when the monks are together that the public security bureau isn't watching them. The Chinese hold 'patriotic campaigns,' and all the monks are forced to renounce the Dalai Lama."

Like many Tibetans I speak with, the monk asks that his name not be used, for fear of reprisals. Chinese security agents, he says, have cracked down on interactions with foreign visitors. "When I first came here, it wasn't illegal for monks to talk to foreigners," the monk says. "Now it is."

more (via The Rat)

After watching the film of Children of Men*, I didn't go back to P.D. James's originating novel, which I've never read, but farther back, to Brian Aldiss's Greybeard, first published in 1964, a novel I last read somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.

I went back to Greybeard because other than remembering that it is about a future Earth where humans are infertile, I had no memory of its incidents or characters, only a vague recollection of the book's tone and affect, which I remembered as being like a soft, pastoral requiem -- immensely lyrical, unbearably and unrelievedly sad.

WAKING UP IS HARD TO DO: In which I revise and extend my remarks on Eyes Wide Shut.

First of all, I should reiterate that the whole "EWS as horror movie" thing is 100% Sean Collins's insight, and 0% mine. A couple people have given me props for it, so again, it isn't my idea, and I doubt I would ever have gotten it on my own. Viewing EWS as a horror movie totally added not only to my understanding of the movie, but also to my enjoyment of it, so I'm really grateful to Sean for getting it.

Anyway. Josiah Neeley writes:

...A friend of mine, who is a bit of a womanizer, says that it's the scariest movie he's ever seen. I'm not so sure I agree that the movie is about committing adultery in your heart, though. What drives Cruise throughout the film is not really lust so much as a semi-conscious desire to "even the score" and thereby get rid of the feeling that he's been cuckolded. (The scene where those random street toughs bump into Cruise and shout anti-gay slurs at him is illustrative of this). What set Kidman off, and led her to tell Cruise about the soldier in the first place, was the fact that Cruise wasn't jealous when told that another man was hitting on his wife but was instead turned on by the thought. So I think the film is more of a psychological thriller than a moral one. Cruise is presented a with a series of temptations that normally wouldn't be much of a temptation (just as the girls at the party at the beginning of the film weren't a real temptation for him), but because of what's happened with Kidman he feels almost compelled to give in. Each temptation is more depraved than the last (first plain adultery, then prostitution, then basically child prostitution,and finally a sadistic orgy) representing a kind of descent into hell, until the woman dying after the party snaps him out of it enough that he can actually *talk* to his wife about it all.

The good girl/bad girl thing was interesting. What would you make of the fact that the woman who saves Cruise at the end is the one who he saves at the beginning of the film?

My only real complaint with the film aesthetically was that stupid music that played throughout the second half of the film whenever there wasn't any dialogue (made more annoying by my sense that the only reason it was there was to fill up the silence). That doesn't have anything to do with what you wrote. But it's something I've been wanting to get off my chest for a while now.

Quickly: I think the sequence of events reinforces my belief that the movie is centrally concerned with "adultery in one's heart." Kidman's character commits it, then needs reassurance that her sin was important, and her insistence precipitates the rest of the film's events, all of which are mental/spiritual rather than carnal.

As for the "bad girls" question... I think, if anything, the point Josiah raises makes the movie creepier. The well-being of the women Ziegler et al. exploit is explicitly raised as a major issue... and then just dropped.

Sean Collins responds to my review here. Some thoughts:
To return to the horror framework, we can consider Bill and Alice Harford (but mostly Bill) to be this film's "final girl." Sure, he survived, but I challenge you to listen to the way he sobs "I'll tell you everything," or see the red eyes of his wife after he does so, or listen to that sadder and wiser conversation they have at the toy store in the film's final scene, and say nothing has changed for them.

He's totally right about Dr Harford as the "final girl." And this is the point where I'm most willing to admit that my own preferences may be skewing my response to the movie. I'm really, really resistant to professions of feeling bad--especially male professions of feeling bad, see above re possibly skewed response to movie--unless accompanied by changes in behavior. I think if I had entered into Cruise's performance in that scene, many of my problems with the movie would have dissipated; I can think of actors who could probably have sold me on his misery. But you have to be really, really, really good to sell me on repentance without change.

I understand that Cruise's character feels really bad. People feel really bad about what they do all the time. And then they "walk back in the revolving door, and do it all again." Some of that is just life. But some of it is a genuine question (which yeah, I put to myself all the time) of how much you're really sorry, if you don't actually change your life.
PS: With regards to their daughter, the absence of any major plot points concerning which was a big sticking point for Eve, I just didn't think she played a particularly relevant part in their erotic and sexual lives. Given what I know to be Eve's political and philosophical bedrock, I can see why this might strike her as a lacuna; given my own sexual outlook, it didn't.

So... it's okay that Helena is marginal to her parents' erotic and sexual lives, because actual children are marginal to their parents' ditto? Yeah, that isn't persuasive to me.

Moreover, Helena is a wasted opportunity from a narrative perspective. I said in my earlier post that the obvious sex as generativity vs. sex as destruction dichotomy wasn't the only way to use Helena; there are about a million ways she could be made important, in the way that actual children are important to their actual parents' erotic lives. She's a daughter, for example: Can Dr Harford look at her without wondering if she will grow up to be misused by men? She's a sign of hope, that no matter how much two people screw up their relationship, they can still produce a child unearned and amazing. She's a sign that his relationship with his wife is about more than just the two of them: Both of them have bonds of responsibility that extend far beyond the self, to a dependent child who loves them.

I really thought the movie was setting us up for some payoff there, in part because Mrs. Dr. makes it clear that her imaginary soldier fling happened after her child was born. I thought the movie's ending would move its protagonists (Josiah Neeley's email suggests why maybe Kidman's character should be considered as much a protagonist as her husband) into the realm of deepened responsibility that comes with deepened love. Instead, Helena runs ahead of and away from them, as their final lines reinforce their mutual self-absorption. Their child really is treated as an accessory to the central fact of their couplehood. It's hard for me to believe that Dr Harford has substantively changed his attitude toward vulnerable women when he seems so uninterested and perfunctory toward his own daughter.
Again, I definitely don't think we're supposed to feel that Bill had no responsibility to the woman at the orgy (or Leelee Sobieski, for that matter) other than "to avoid them," nor that he was untouched by guilt over what befell them thanks to his unwillingness to do anything about it. In an ideal/real world he'd have called the cops the next day, but in the dream logic of the film, he woke up, and by then it's too late to go back and rescue characters from your nightmare.

Okay, I think I understand the nature of Sean's criticism here--it's a point about genre. It's absurd to think that Alice would be concerned about, I don't know, the Red Queen's political prisoners, after her return from Wonderland. You wake up, and while your dream can still affect you, you can no longer affect the dream.

That helplessness might be experienced as tragedy. And exploring or at least showing that tragedy might have "redeemed" EWS for me. It's hard to say, because I don't think the movie actually presents this helplessness as tragic.

It's also really hard for me to see EWS as a dream-narrative for two reasons: 1. Yeah, sexual exploitation of women is a lot more normal than cards cutting off people's heads for tart mismanagement. The movie wants the emotional frisson of real sexual cruelty, with no corresponding responsibility.
2. There's no "entering the dream" moment. The colors are already intensified, the music already insistent, from the first moment. The Wizard of Oz was obvious, and I understand that you can use other methods to shift into dream-narrative, but I don't think I can identify a moment when EWS shifted from black-and-white to Technicolor. It did obviously shift back at the end, though. And while on one level I think that's right--we do slip slowly into dreams (and into sin), while often jerking sharply out of them--on another level it made it really hard for me to view the orgy/exploitation scenes as make-believe, something the characters could leave behind once they awoke.

Look, I know that "in dreams begin responsibilities" is a cliche, but... it's kind of frustrating to me that I think all my problems with EWS are really the same problem repeated in different places, and if that problem were solved in even one place, I would probably be able to suspend my disbelief about the other places. I really wanted to like this movie: It's amazing to look at, and, like I said, I thought the leads were good and the basic idea behind the movie was awesome. And then I felt like it failed to deliver on its promise.

Um. Sorry for writing a book, here, people. I hope this was interesting to someone. Like I said, I really do think you should watch this if it sounds even remotely interesting.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO HOME, BUT YOU CAN'T STAY HERE: I've already raved about Tim Powers's incredible novel, Declare. And yes, you should read that right this second. I've managed to snare at least three people into reading it, and all three have admitted that it was great.

I recently finished an earlier Powers novel, Last Call. I don't have a huge amount to say about it. It struck me as fantasy-horror, not just fantasy. Lots of people I like get really into Tarot symbolism and Jungian whatnot; if you're one of those people, I'm pretty sure I can guarantee that this novel will flip your switch. For me, Tarot was a passing fancy, whereas the Cambridge spy ring (implicated in Declare) was true love.

But I'll say two things for sure: 1.) This novel reminded me of everything I love about Stephen King. The gritty, blue-collar atmosphere; the battle between self-deception and self-knowledge; the descriptions of alcohol and need. Susan, in Last Call, reminded me strongly of both Pet Sematary and The Shining--and those are the King novels I think will still be remembered "when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits." I need to re-read Dostoyevsky's Gambler; but even the fact that this book reminded me of that one should let you know how painful and acute it was.

2.) I was okay with this book until the last, let's say, 150 pp. Then I needed to know. I stayed up all night reading. My heart pounded. Partly, okay, yes, that's because Last Call tapped into my deep-rooted obsessions with humiliation and sacrifice. But I'm pretty sure that, whoever you are, it taps into some of your deep-rooted obsessions too.

I think maybe all great fantasy is about salvage. Great fantasy, I think maybe, requires characters to sacrifice everything on behalf of something; and it's the everything and the something which determine the story.
HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY! HERE'S A REVIEW OF "EYES WIDE SHUT"! Okay, the dumb basic response is that I'm really glad I saw this. That said (with some spoilers, so if you are like me and hate spoilers, please know that you should put this movie in your Netflix queue instanter, even though you will probably dislike it):

1. Sean Collins is obviously right that it's a horror film. He gets at lots of the details that make it "'Eyes Wide Shut,' from the director of 'The Shining'!", and I agree with every word of his write-up; but I think he misses the dumb basic point: Most horror films have the moral, "Don't!" And in that sense, EWS is a horror movie about committing adultery in your heart.


2. It's so amazing, as a movie. The colors are astonishing--the cobalt blues and neon oranges of Van Gogh's madness. The acting--I honestly didn't know that Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise could act at all, and now... yeah, okay. I get it. Especially for Kidman. She's melodramatic in a way that makes it part of her character and her world; she makes every studied gesture a statement about the world in which all her gestures would need to be studied and perfect. The rushing, pulsing camera was amazing, especially in the taxi scenes. The ideas behind the movie--what if sex were the instrument of horror? what if physical contact weren't necessary for that to happen?--are brilliant.

3. But.

The movie pulls back before the brink--before every brink. How are its protagonists changed by the end? What have their experiences cost them? I can't think of anything.

The Cruise-Kidman couple have a daughter. I thought perhaps she would be the key to the movie: sex as generativity vs. sex as destructive weapon. That didn't happen, which is fine--that particular opposition is something I feel like I understand pretty well, and I'd really be more intrigued by alternative dichotomies. (Horror, I think, feeds on dichotomies.) But Helena's role in the plot turned out to be deeply disturbing to me: It seemed like she was a token doled out to the survivors as a reward for good behavior--like the blue and pink molded plastic figurines in the LIFE boardgame.

4. Nudity. EWS needed (female) nudity, in the way that Pauline Reage's Story of O needs explicit descriptions. The movie tried hard to get us to recognize that we weren't seeing girls' bushes for no reason: The huge painting of a naked lady, in Ziegler's suite, was probably the most obvious example. Her genitals were always hidden--ostentatiously hidden--by the scenery, whereas the actual genitals of the actress who played Ziegler's brief inamorata were constantly on display. So clearly we're supposed to think something about the fact that women's bodies (and not male bodies, ever) are displayed for us here.

Well... not only did EWS ignore the most startling and compelling moods of O (the sunlight slanting through late afternoon) in favor of a cliched Black Mass orgy. More importantly, the strictures of Hollywood stardom (maybe?) required that Kidman never get quite as naked as her female cohorts. So we see them from the front, but she's only naked from the back. That difference reinforces the sense already invited by the movie's ending: There are good girls and bad girls. Good girls shouldn't be cheated on, even in your head, and you should have sex with them and display their nudity tastefully from the back. Bad girls may get killed and raped and even photographed in full-frontal, and your only responsibility is to avoid them. No guilt attaches to you if you leave them to be destroyed.

In the end, I think EWS is a shocking, brilliant, hollow movie. Deep on the outside; shallow within.
HUGH HEWITT INTERVIEWS A COLONEL WHO SAYS TORTURE IS WRONG. What a shocker. Cruelty isn't what the soldiers I know believe we should be doing. That isn't the country they love, the country for whom they risk their lives daily.

I've tried to write this post about fifteen times now, and keep failing; so, despite my total failure to explain why, please, please pray for all our soldiers, past and present. Every one I know is keeping his or her honor brighter than the day.

edited to give the guy his proper rank
FOR "THOSE WHO HAD TO ENDURE HIGH SCHOOL WITHOUT THE GRACE OF BAPTISM." This wasn't my story; but people who know me well will hear the symmetries.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

DEFINITIONS AND DESIRES: Some day I'll stop linking to every other post Disputed Mutability makes. Today is not that day. Ted Haggard, self-understanding, shifting attractions, and incompleteness.
RESTORE-HABEAS.ORG: OK, three caveats: I do not know very much about this proposed act. I can't read the text, because opening a PDF will crash this computer. (I will print it out tomorrow.) And I don't have a senator. But a bill that "will restore Habeas Corpus protections to detainees, bar information acquired through torture from being introduced as evidence in trials, and limit presidential authority to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions" sounds pretty good to me. Apparently it will be introduced tomorrow (Wednesday), so if you do have a senator, now is the time to check it out. Also, of course, feel free to send me any links to discussion of the bill (pro or con) since nothing has turned up in the course of my usual rounds.

Monday, February 12, 2007

...The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

(via Mark Shea and Unqualified Offerings)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER: Philip Roth's most recent novel, Everyman, is excellent. Ratty vets his books before I read them, and she singled this one out as action I should get in on.

It's... well, it's sort of the miniature Sabbath's Theater. That's just not possible, really: Sabbath's Theater is Roth's masterwork (so far), a novel completely one-step-beyond--not a "good Roth novel," but a great thing in the world. It's devastating, and its length is part of how it gets its effects. Everyman is necessarily diminished by the contrast. But the themes, and the musicality of the writing, are similar: Everyman has the same rhythm of crescendo and new movement, or diminuendo and new movement, or repeated motif. Its structure isn't dependent on plot, on causal connection, but on a rhythm of intensity, relief, and exhaustion.

When Ratty told me about the explanation of the title (it's the name of the jewelry store owned by the protagonist's father), I was skeptical. Why would you need an explanation? Either the book earns the archetypal title or it doesn't. But when I got to the passage where the store gets named, it was really powerful: commerce vs death (diamonds are forever), assimilation vs outsider status (if you call yourself "everyman," maybe every man will buy from you), an attempt to resolve all the conflicts on both the ethnic and the metaphysical levels of the American Dream.

I really, really liked this.
KITCHEN ADVENTURES: PRODUCT PLACEMENT. Trader Joe's Cuban Mojito Simmer Sauce.

It's... ooohh. It's bright and tangy and kicky and all those fun things. So far I've used it on my normal spaghetti sauce (= chop up garlic, plum tomatoes, mushrooms, and sweet onions) in place of olive oil, and that was great. Throw in cayenne, though, because this isn't really spicy.

But the real fun comes when you get an avocado all up in there. Go and get yourself a black, very slightly yielding avocado--ripe but not squishy. You want an avocado that will kind of mash when you try to cut it. Then coarsely chop some garlic; simmer it in this awesome simmer sauce; chop yourself a tomato, this avocado you've found (a really ripe one is incredibly easy to skin and pit--just cut halfway through until you hit the pit, then cut around the pit, then cut around the rind or scoop out the innards), a medium-sized jalapeno, whatever else you want. Cookity cookity. Maybe a bit more simmer sauce. Chop up some asadero cheese: very melty, very yummy.

I've been having this with pasta, which I realize is unorthodox; for me, it worked out, and I'd suggest a pasta like fusilli or rotelle (not penne--too thin--or spaghetti), but others will prefer this as a spread for thick toast, or some other thing. The pasta dishes reheat brilliantly in the microwave. If you do this as a pasta topping, just cook the pasta; drain it; butter it significantly (don't skimp! Butter makes it better!); mix in the asadero cubes; then top with this amazing avocado thing you've created.

It's so good. I really want to try mojito-sauce beef chili. (And this!) I usually prefer to cook from scratch, but this is just exceptionally awesome and fun.
OOOHHH... IT'S EVEN KIND OF SHAPED LIKE A GIRL!: "Manolo says, for the Manolo nothing gets him through the middle of the cold winter week better than the pictures of the beautiful shoes...." So shiny and sexy and shoe-y!
"we aren't who we are"....and of course, neither is Iago: "I am not what I am."

Didn't notice that.
THE SODOM AND GOMORRAH SHOW: I have a review of the Met's show of portraits from Weimar Germany, in the current Commonweal. Click at own risk etc etc etc.
THAT'S WHAT YOU GET FOR HAVING FUN: Notes from a weekend in New Haven.

* It's possible--I'm not saying it's a good idea, I'm just saying it's possible--to consider Alyosha Karamazov as a zoon politikon. This isn't really true of the other brothers.

* I seem to equivocate on the difference between "belief" and "feeling." I'm starting to suspect that I call things feelings if I mistrust them, and beliefs if I don't. That can't possibly be the right terminology. I need to find a better way of talking about the fact that certain types of longing do imply facts about the world while other types of longing lead to a pointillist, self-sunken, disconnected view of life. CS Lewis says this, in "The Weight of Glory":

...[W]e remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? 'Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.' But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man's physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man's hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called 'falling in love' occurred in a sexless world.

* I had a really challenging, awesome discussion of the Fall. This led into a dispute over whether responsibility could ever be a part of love (I now think I was right, and it can, because promises are a part of love) and a dispute over whether the Fall changed humans intrinsically or solely changed our circumstances--whether the exile is internal, a warping of humanity, not only the lack of the Garden but the lack of the kind of self who could stand the Garden.

And here I think I may have been wrong--I think I may have been overly wedded to the language of the Fall as imposing an "inclination to sin." As my interlocutor pointed out, if that's true, it's really hard to understand how Adam and Eve managed to sin at all--as he pointed out, it's not like they held out for a long time! And there can't really be an intelligible reason for sin, I think--all sins are like Iago's sins.

But I do think it's right to say that we're not ourselves after the Fall. It isn't only our circumstances that changed. It's our ability to be distilled, to be the kind of love we as individuals might best exemplify; we aren't who we are, which is why, as Nietzsche says, we have to become what we are. I think this way of talking acknowledges the (to me) obvious damage in the self, not only in our circumstances. (I'm reminded here of the really excellent passage from Perelandra in which the Earth man in Paradise wishes he could go outside for a smoke--he wants to be free of the stress of God's regard.)

* Every college student should read Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History. Ecstasy and its epigones.

* Apparently, I can enjoy a discussion of Cixous, Gadamer, and Lacan, as long as I can make it actually a conversation about Elaine Scarry and the Weakerthans. Score!

(Oh, and hey, people who have seen the Spanish art show at the Guggenheim: What does this image make you think of? ...Yeah, me too.)

* Almost every kind of fun I like seems to involve intellectual or social humiliation. Oh well. Offer it up.

* An exception: eating food! New Haven is such a wonderful city in which to feed. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting (it is, really, one of my favorite places, and I don't care what anyone says!), make sure you get a hamburger at the Doodle, stuffed mushrooms at Anna Liffey's (drinks also good, sincerely alcoholic and inexpensive, and perfectly situated a mere block from the confessionals of St Mary's!), and, if possible, baker's soup at Mory's. Just sink your muzzle in and experience creaturely happiness.

* Walter Olson, of Overlawyered fame, is really awesome. I mean, I knew that. I just thought you guys might want to know too. ...I also got to see Cacciaguida, who emphasized the power of Mozart; Alexander of Macedon, who spewed humility in all directions; Kira, who warred hilariously with the sky; this guy, who got to see Ennio Morricone, for which I think I might kill him!!!!; this guy, who forced me to back down on some of the belief/feeling stuff above; and many other people who skated the thin ice between the beautiful and the sublime. I had a wonderful time. It was very humiliating.
Like a blogwatch in the dark,
He can leave you feeling stark...

The Agitator: Your daily dose of helplessness against those with political power. It's where theodicy meets libertarianism! Here, pregnant woman vs. the police. And then there's this story of boy vs. dad. I'll spoil it: unhappy endings.

Amy Welborn: Saints of Selma. What an awesome picture! PBS is forgiven for Elmo.

Hit & Run: I didn't know they did an entire issue on Hurricane Katrina. I haven't read it, but seriously, this is the kind of thing Reason does really, really well. As soon as I get on top of work, I'll be going through this with intense interest. Also, why not apply for an internship there?

Mixolydian Mode: Brushed-on developer. Ohhh, so awesome. I want a darkroom so badly right now I can practically taste it. (It doesn't taste great, I gotta say--kinda yellowy and chemical.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

We were in Blogwatch--
Let's do it,
Let's break the law....

Amy Welborn:

There's a lot of discussion and (justifiable) fretting out there about why people leave the Cathoilc Church. It's a discussion we've had here, and will continue to have. But I want this thread to be something different, something I don't think I've seen before.

If you're a "revert"--why? What brought you back?

I'd imagine for most it will be a combination of things. And it doesn't matter why you "left"--although that will probably come into the discussion, too. What I mean to say is that if you "left" because after your parents had you baptized they never set foot in a Catholic church again, your story is just as interesting as that of the person who consciously left, as an adult.

more! more!

Cinecon: Victor is doing his year's-best list, and it's pretty fascinating. We have very different tastes, I think; but I read a Village Voice review of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and it made me want to run as far in the other direction as possible, whereas Victor's review makes me really wish I'd seen it.

Daniel Mitsui: In which St. Brigid prays for awesome.

First Things: A reply to Fr Oakes's post about heresy and whatnot. I realized, reading this, that I liked the initial post for all the Therese-y-ness, and I didn't pay tons of attention to the wittering about definitions of "heresy" or whatever. So I'll just say I think you can agree with both Fr Oakes and Stephen Barr, and I think that's where I am.

More here.
HERESY TODAY, THERESY TOMORROW: It's a cavalcade of puns in this very awesome post from Fr. Edward Oakes. Putting the "tiff" back in justification? All I can say is, the quotations from Therese fit in completely with everything I ever thought I understood about Catholic theology, so, you know, if you thought Catholics were all about rejecting a grace-centered perspective, have I got a saint for you! (I expect it helps that Augustine was always my go-to guy.) The post is long, but really worth your time.