Jan 152003

1. No psychologizing. Rachel Lucas was widely praised for this analysis of Michael Moore’s inner life. It was funny, and it might even be true. But it is irrelevant to Michael Moore’s arguments, which are bad, and even to Michael Moore’s behavior, which is worse. By their fruits shall ye know them. There is a scene in the very funny movie Office Space where one character, having been drawn by another into an absurd criminal scheme, turns to him and says, “You are a very bad person, Peter.” That’s what I think of Michael Moore: he’s a very bad person, who believes very stupid things. There the matter ends.

2. No attribution of motives. This is a related matter, and I’ve discussed it on a large scale with Bush and Iraq. Many of the loonier anti-war arguments, like the accusations about Bush avenging his father or setting up his Houston cronies with a sweet deal, rely on attribution of motives and can be dismissed out of hand. On a tiny scale it happened to me just yesterday. The usually superb Colby Cosh and I were arguing about Pulp Fiction and he accused me of pretending not to like it to be au courant. Now how would he know? And even if he were right the fact would neither strengthen Colby’s argument nor weaken mine.

3. No tribal pleading. Nothing is more tiresome than constant shilling for one party or the other. The lesson of Sid Blumenthal, once a respected and interesting journalist, later a Democratic party shill, and finally a hired flack, has been lost on such people. (Paul Krugman is at stage 2 of the Blumenthal trajectory.) Whoever is tempted to this should remember that it was his loyalty to certain ideas, one hopes, that made him loyal to a party, not the other way around.

Jan 132003

Kathy Shaidle, Colby Cosh and The Ambler, Kevin Michael Grace, are having at each other about movies. I intrude on this intramural squabble only because they’re all wrong.

Pulp Fiction, to begin with, is the most overrated movie by the most overrated director of the last twenty years. About forty-five minutes into the movie, John Travolta traces a square with his hands, by way of telling Uma Thurman not to be so, or maybe it’s Thurman who makes the gesture to Travolta, I can’t remember. In any case Tarantino paints a square on the screen over it, in the manner of certain awful movies from the early 60s. With this, this ironic and allusive yet utterly obvious and stupid gesture, I lost hope. Royale with cheese indeed. By far the best of Pulp Fiction‘s three segments is Harvey Keitel’s cleaner, plagiarized in concept and many details from La Femme Nikita and in any case easily separable from the rest of the movie. Plagiarism is Tarantino’s one extraordinary talent; the best bit in Reservoir Dogs, the crooks naming themselves after colors, is lifted from the excellent little caper movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which Kathy justly praises. Pulp Fiction’s chronology is shuffled to disguise its conventional plot of boy gets girl, fixes enemies, and rides off into sunset. If the movie had been filmed in time it would be more immediately obvious what a banal exercise it really is.

2001 is aptly described by its chief defender, Kevin Grace, as a tone poem, and by tone-poem standards it is watchable and snappily paced. Yes, the bone-throwing and lip-reading are cool, and given a choice to sit through one of Kubrick’s movies, I will take 2001 over Barry Lyndon, and definitely over Eyes Wide Shut.

It baffles me that some critics list Some Like It Hot as the funniest comedy ever made, and I suspect that its subject matter inflates its reputation. A far funnier Wilder-Monroe movie is The Seven-Year Itch, which more than any other single movie made Monroe Monroe and is remembered now only for the scene in which her dress blows up as she stands over the subway grate. Her combination of sex and ingenuousness is never better captured than here, when she looks directly into the camera and says, “He was like the Creature from the Black Lagoon!” The Seven-Year Itch is a perfectly sunny and cheerful movie about adultery. Such movies, about anything, were rare then and are extinct now.

Miracle from Morgan’s Creek is the wrong relatively obscure Preston Sturges vehicle to revive; try Unfaithfully Yours instead — especially the scene where Rex Harrison wrestles with a sort of 1940s equivalent of a CD burner, and loses. I laugh harder at this than anything else in the history of the movies.

That scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen (no, not his character; personally) recites the things that make life worth living into a tape recorder: “Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, the lox at Zabar’s, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues’…” — what’s not to hate? I mean, get a blog if you have to do that sort of thing. Like Kathy, I prefer Crimes and Misdemeanors: the skewering of the Alan Alda character is even more delightful because one gets the distinct impression that Alan Alda, in life, is actually like that. But I would trade both movies, plus Annie Hall, for the first half of Love and Death, distinguished for, among other things, containing not only the best but the two best village idiot jokes ever.

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down, this is fun. Stay tuned for other thought-substitutes, coming soon!

(Update: AC Douglas posts his top movies of 50 years hence. I have enough trouble just figuring out what I like.)

(Another Update: What I call plagiarism Colby Cosh calls research. Here’s a guy who can refer to Rashomon and write “acquaintance with the grammar of one’s art,” when the art is movie-making, in a single sentence, calling me a snob. I like it.)

Jan 112003

It’s a glorious day for Death Row inmates in Illinois, as Governor Ryan commuted every death sentence today.

“The death penalty in Illinois is not imposed fairly or uniformly,” said Ryan, but is often based on geography, race, nationality or economic status.

“The legislature couldn’t reform it,” the 69-year-old governor said. “Lawmakers won’t repeal it. And I won’t stand for it.”

“So there,” continued the governor, adding, in reply to criticisms that he had arrogantly substituted his own judgment for those of juries and courts, “I’m rubber and you’re glue and everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Seriously, I oppose the death penalty, but everyone should object to this circumvention of the law regardless of his views on the matter.

Jan 102003

Dr. Weevil had a post a few days ago about ambiguous warning signs, like

Slow Down
Get Ticket

In the lobby of the building where I work there’s a sign that reads

No Soliciting
Violators Will
Be Prosecuted

Which not only lets the beggars off the hook, but encourages non-begging violators to start begging if caught in the act.

(Update: Dr. Weevil comes up with the best sign yet.)

Jan 102003

An early finalist is Lileks:

The fact that [Gangs of New York] was Martys dream project, sixty-seven years in the making, was never good news. Dream projects long deferred usually bite the wax tadpole. Ill call it the Saucy Jack syndrome, and leave the obscure reference at that.

Points off for calling attention to its obscurity, but still.

Jan 082003

A friend of mine bet his girlfriend he could write a sonnet in an hour — Keats is supposed to have written “On Chapman’s Homer” in an hour — and foolishly sent me the result. The first twelve lines limp along in correct enough pentameter, but he concludes with:

For even if these foes produce a battle won,
A sight so simple as her smile doth make them one.

This is about the best straight line I’ve been fed for a while; I sent him back this couplet from Pope:

A needless alexandrine ends the song,
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

(Update: Nobody, not even Seablogger, who dissects it line by line, appears to have remarked of Andrew Motion’s bit of doggerel that the second line is an alexandrine, dragging its slow length along.)

Jan 072003

I always liked the idea of Mickey Kaus’s Assignment Desk, although I doubt anyone ever handed in an assignment. Mickey, however, only gave homework to mainstream journalists. There are a lot more bloggers, with a lot more time on their hands, and in the hope that my luck will be better, I hereby inaugurate Blogger Assignment Desk.

Assignment: What Is Race? I’m a willing Jensenist, if only because race and IQ is a topic guaranteed to annoy people who ought to be annoyed. Yet I can’t bring myself to treat race as a real, scientific category, and blogged a few jejune reflections on the subject when even fewer people read me than read me now. Scholars who discuss race refer to genetic similarities, and of course they exist, as one can see by the distribution of certain diseases like sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs, but I remain unpersuaded that race is an immutable category or even a useful one. This article should, at a minimum, answer the following questions. How many races are there? How can genetic similarity be the basis for race when genetic differences are greater within what are called races than between them? Why are certain characteristics, like skin pigment, considered racial, while others, like height or eye color, are not? Convince me.

Bonus: Most race studies claim that self-identification is an adequate marker for actual genetic differences, which raises an interesting legal point. Suppose someone of no use in a Benetton ad declared himself African-American and was admitted to college on that basis. What recourse would the college have, if any? Is there a race test? There is a dreadful Hollywood movie, Soul Man, with a similar premise, in which the “black” student goes around in blackface and winds up groveling before the “genuinely” black Dean of Students, James Earl Jones of course, for making a travesty of the black experience. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about checking the black box on your college application and not saying another word about it.

Assigned to: Gene Expression (in thanks for adding me to their blogroll), Steve Sailer. B-Team: G Factor, Jon Jay Ray.

Jan 062003

Eugene Volokh politely eviscerates Paul Craig Roberts today for arguing that the Constitution used to stand for equality in law and no longer does. But he omits the most obvious counterexample, the Three-Fifths Compromise. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Roberts is flaying race preferences, but hyperbole in service of a good cause is an especially bad idea. Who was it who said not to worry about your enemies, it’s your friends you have to look out for?