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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The soft pornography of the flower

Here's the companion piece to Ben's post about Joan Mitchell and the feeling of the dying sunflower: a Dutch gardener on how gardens die elegantly. The best line:
“He’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower,” said Charles Waldheim, the director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Toronto. “He’s interested in the life cycle, how plant material ages over the course of the year,” and how it relates to the plants around it.

There's also a great and then he gasped at the beauty of all that brown and gray moment in the middle of the article.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

To convey the feeling of the dying sunflower

I've had an itch ever since Alice lent me Lawrence Weschler's excellent collection of brief biographic articles, A Wanderer in The Perfect City. The opening piece is the nearly book-length true story of Harold Shapinsky, an eccentric and previously unknown abstract expressionist painter toiling away in obscurity in New York. Shapinsky is discovered by an even more remarkable character, Akumal Ramachander, an English professor from India, who makes it his mission to force a revision of the canon to include Shapinsky.

Through the story, art professionals are repeatedly blown away by seeing Shapinsky's work, and as I read, I felt sorry that the book didn't include a few pictures of his work. So I finally called some up online. Here are four:

I think I can see what's fun and exciting about them, but they're not what I was hoping for when reading of the unleashed glory of Shapinsky's talent.

All of this is a lead-in to my real topic: Joan Mitchell. Wikipedia nutshell: born in 1925, lived most of her adult life in France, died in 1992, painted in the "second generation" of abstract expressionists; wanted her paintings "to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower."

I found her paintings on some of the same web pages as Shapinsky's, and I like her stuff much more. Here's a bunch of it, ordered with no regard to date and stripped of titles.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Settlers of Catan birthday cake

My friend Marina received a wonderful late birthday present: a painstakingly made birthday cake in the form of the Settlers of Catan boardgame. She said her friend cut out hexagons of sponge cake, dyed the icing to represent each of the biomes, and made little fondant pieces to represent the game pieces. Settlers of Catan is one of Ben's favorite games--I've only played it once, on Kate's team--and it seems well-suited to someone who's interested in games as systems.

When I was in high school, I played a lot of Sid Meier's Civilization II--so much so that I used to dream in the diamond-shaped graphic interface (dreaming in hexagons would be crazy, right?). I made my stepfather a Civ II birthday card once, but I never was so creative or talented to make fondant landmarks. The thing is, I wasn't interested in getting better at Civ II, so I'd just win every time on the easier settings by conquering the world. I never tried to build the spaceship--the second option for winning the game--and I wouldn't have been able to conquer the world on a more difficult setting. Instead, I made graphs of the population growth--which always looked the same, obviously--and wrote out timelines of the discoveries and wars, with the idea of writing out a historical narrative of the game I'd just played. Like The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman, Sioux, Babylonian, and American Civilization. My stepfather kept trying to get me to work on strategy rather than petty warmongering; he was a master at the game and its later versions such as Alpha Centauri and I can remember hearing the jangling sound of victorious battles ringing throughout the house all the time.

So here's more from Bookforum about Guy Debord's war boardgame. The essay is heavy on biography, and I'm interested in how he theorized the strategy for the game, but this is interesting:
Atlas Press has just rereleased A Game of War in a new English rendering by Donald Nicholson-Smith, a translator Debord appears to have trusted. The edition comes in a sleek box and includes, for long winter nights, a playing board and little punch-out pieces. It’s difficult to summarize. The board contains two facing territories of 250 squares each. Two of these per side are “arsenal” squares. (Active pieces, we learn, must be in “communication”—i.e., aligned, either directly or through intermediary pieces—with an arsenal.) Territories also include three “fort” squares (which raise a piece’s “defensive factor”—more on that in a second), nine “mountain” squares (impenetrable to all things), and one “mountain-pass” square (for penetrating the impenetrable mountains). Each side has seventeen pieces—an array of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and communications. Players take turns, as in chess. Unlike in chess, they move up to five pieces per turn. Each piece carries a numerical “offensive factor” in addition to its defensive factor; when an attack is under way, offensive factors are summed and weighed against the defense, à la Risk. The game ends when a player’s fighting pieces or arsenals are gone. In the match Debord played with his wife, this took fifty-five moves. Ludologists and the extremely anal-retentive will be relieved to find that errors in the 1987 diagrams have been corrected. The rest of us will be glad just to get the rules down.

In crafting this game, Debord was synthesizing more than inventing. The thinker who inspired him was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who spent most of his life fighting the French—first the Revolutionary Army, then Napoleon. His goal was to understand how these unorthodox campaigns succeeded, and his summa, On War, unfinished at his death in 1831, is a military classic. It’s also a book seriously prone to misreading. Debord, who often described living as a private war (and who dealt his own share of Delphic prose), saw Clausewitz’s precepts as life lessons; his game was originally to be subtitled “Strategy and Tactics of Military Conflict (According to Clausewitz).” But that title would have been as wrong as it is ugly. Debord’s game may take its lead from On War’s principles and anachronisms—his generation feared the Bomb, not the cavalry, after all—but it misses Clausewitz’s point. “War, and the form which we give it, proceeds from ideas, feelings, and circumstances,” wrote the general. His key innovation was to depict participants in combat as unreliable, diverse, and prey to loyalties and grudges: to humanize battlefield strategy. Debord’s ambitions traveled in the opposite direction: to shrink the human world down to a game board.

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Do you think this is a good life?

Bookforum is one of my favorite publications: there are always four or five essays in it that just blow me away, even (especially) if I'm less familiar with the authors under discussion. This is a great James Wolcott essay on the collected works of Donald Barthelme which gives a thriling account of what it was like to read the New Yorker fiction section in the '60s and '70s:
Such questions arise because part of the original exploding-alarm-clock novelty of Barthelme’s Pop fiction was the pristine context in which it was first presented—-the modest decor with which it clashed. Take, for instance, “The Indian Uprising,” accepted by fiction editor Roger Angell with a telegram to Barthelme that read indian uprising uproarious. palefaces routed, shawn scalped. in short, yes and published in the New Yorker of March 6, 1965. A Vietnam allegory whose incantatory ironies evoke the fine cuticles of T. S. Eliot, its energy and invention burst out of the gate from its famous opening paragraph of Comanche arrows descending in clouds on a tableau of bourgeois malaise—“‘Do you think this is a good life?’ The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. ‘No’”—to the swath of carnage that leaves children laid waste by helicopter fire. The anarchist force of “The Indian Uprising” would have stood out anywhere, but in the porcelain pages of the New Yorker, sharing space with luxury-carpet ads and chuckling nods of constipated whimsy from the Talk of the Town, it was like a reveille ripping through a conservatory. As Ben Yagoda wrote in About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, “The Indian Uprising” and a subsequent story, “A Picture History of the War,” messed with the reader’s mind: “With their imagery of war and torture and guerrilla forces on patrol, they also offered uncanny auguries of the street conflicts and jungle warfare that would soon insinuate themselves into the videotape loop running through the national consciousness.” Likewise, Barthelme’s rogue retelling of Snow White, which took up a huge chunk of real estate in the February 18, 1967, issue (nearly one hundred pages), looks almost insurrectionary in its impudence, brandishing boldfaced maxims and proclamations that anticipated Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer—-“Anathematization of the World Is Not an Adequate Response to the World”—-in the face of ads for Connie Francis and Pat Cooper at the Copacabana and Brendan Gill’s pithy review of Tobruk (“the Jewish commando is played by George Peppard”). Yagoda informs us that “Snow White” prompted an influx of mail that was unparalleled for a piece of fiction—nearly all of the letters either outright unfavorable or irritated-puzzled. But the New Yorker didn’t lose its nerve when its readers lost theirs, a rare, cherishable example of institutional composure and loyalty to talent.

Over the years, Barthelme’s antic break with the traditional tactful manner of the classic New Yorker story, where every stick of furniture and motivation was neatly, firmly in place, would expand into an entire wing of the magazine’s house style. His mastery of incongruity and curveball allusions helped liberate the whiz brains in the office and scramble the genetic code of the magazine’s humor and fiction irregulars: By the ’70s, the set-piece fictions and “casuals” of Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Mark Singer, Marshall Brickman, and George W. S. Trow abounded with absurdist dialogues, box scores, chess notations, chicken-scratch scribblings, send-ups of familiar minigenres (liner notes, movie blurbs, capsule reviews, wedding notices), multiple-choice quizzes, and mash-up satires (Geng’s specialty—-assigned to write a new intro to Dwight Macdonald’s anthology Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After, she pretended to have him confused with the mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee, and cast Robert Benchley in the part of “the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”). They ran riot while Ann Beattie stood slightly off to the side, strumming her hair.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Beethoven's notation

A fascinating NY Times piece on comparing versions of Beethoven's works:
The problem with establishing a Beethoven urtext is that the original sources are so many, varied and conflicting. Beethoven would usually begin by sketching out a sonata, either in a book or on loose pages that tended to separate, and write so close to illegibly that only a practiced eye could make sense of it. “I served a long apprenticeship deciphering Beethoven sketches,” Professor Cooper said.

An autograph manuscript in Beethoven’s hand would be followed by a fair copy made by an assistant to send to the publisher. The publisher would produce a first impression (a trial run of, say, 100 copies), then a second impression of many more. After that — the world of 18th- and early-19th-century publishing being cowboy country — it was not uncommon for rival publishers to issue their own editions, sometimes at Beethoven’s request. In other words, he double-sold, even triple-sold, his work.

At every stage in this chain came opportunities to change the text, either by accident or by design. But the difference between an error and a correction or improvement is not always clear, so you can end up with five or more variants of the same text with no conclusive proof of which one represents finality.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Oscar predictions 2008: There will be nominees

I like to try to predict the Academy Awards (See my post on oscars prediction, and my bets from last year). This year, 2008, for the 80th Academy Awards, I'm going further: predicting the nominees too! (The real nominees will be announced by the Academy on January 22nd)

Best Picture
Eastern Promises
No Country for Old Men
There Will be Blood <- my pick to win
This has been an incredible year for Oscar-"calibre" films, and so the nominees for the Best Picture category are very hard to predict. I feel confident that Blood will beat Atonement and No Country for Old Men, but there are many films that could win enough nomination votes to make this list, and which I'd say have as good a chance as Eastern Promises at being nominated: Juno, Sweeny Todd, Zodiac, Michael Clayton, Gone Baby Gone, Into the Wild, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. American Gangster once seemed bound for Best Picture nomination, but has flopped. I'm not confident that Ratatouille will make the cut, but who in Hollywood who has seen it could not nominate it? Juno is also a wildcard in the Little Miss Sunshine vein, but I don't see both Ratatouille and Juno making the cut.

Best Director
Paul T. Anderson (There Will be Blood) <- my pick to win

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men)
Todd Haynes (I'm Not There)
Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)
Sean Penn (Into the Wild)
I don't think we'll see Tim Burton (Sweeny Todd) here. Penn doesn't merit inclusion, but there is lots of buzz about him winning the award. Lumet will be nominated for his past work as much as for Devil. David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and David Fincher (Zodiac) could turn up. Sarah Polley (Away From Her) deserves to be nominated.

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood) <- my pick to win

Frank Langella (Starting out in the Morning)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
George Clooney (Michael Clayton)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Savages, or Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)
No Johnny Depp (Sweeny Todd) this year. PSH will be nominated ostensibly for Savages but also for co-lead role in Devil. Mortensen (Eastern Promises) is a strong contender here. I didn't like the movie, but he was awesome. Casey Affleck might show up on the strength of his two well-received performances (in The Assassination of blah blah blah and Gone Baby Gone). James McAvoy is a great actor, but I don't think his performance generated enough buzz.

(Also, see Best Actor trivia below)

Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck (Assassination..., but indirectly for Gone Baby Gone)
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)
Michael Cera (Juno, but indirectly for Superbad)
Paul Dano (There Will be Blood) <- my pick to win

Robert Downey Jr. (Zodiac)
Dano and Bardem have all the buzz. I know my predictions add up to a Blood sweep, which I don't think will happen, but the strongest nominees in each category keep being Bloods. For the record, I thought Dano's direction and character arc were clumsily handled.

Best Actress
Julie Christie (Away from Her)
Keira Knightley (Atonement)
Laura Linney (Savages)
Ellen Page (Juno) <- my pick to win
Keri Russell (Waitress)
Marion Cotillard, La Mome / Ma Vie En Rose
A very weak category this year. Am I blanking on some big performances? I don't feel confident about Russell, but who else is there? Cate Blanchett didn't make a splash with Elizabeth 2; Jodie Foster's The Brave One did poorly; and Ashley Judd's Bug wasn't big enough.

Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett (I'm not There)
Catherine Keener (Into the Wild)
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)
Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) <- my pick to win

Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)
A very tough call between Ryan and Blanchett (I'm Not There, plus some spillover from Elizabeth 2 and last year's Notes on a Scandal). But Ryan was just so damn good, and Blanchett won in 2004 (for The Aviator). Julia Roberts is getting talk for Charlie Wilson's War. And there's also Charlotte Gainsbourg in I'm Not There.

Original Screenplay
Brad Bird (Ratatouille)
Diablo Cody (Juno) <- my pick to win

Todd Haynes (I'm not There)
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Seth Rogen Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, and indirectly for Superbad Walk Hard)
This one is a lock if I ever saw one. Tony Gilroy has some career points to cash in (Bourne Identity, The Devil's Advocate, Dolores Claiborne) but everyone is talking about the tatooed stripper from the midwest who's taking Hollywood by storm etc. etc. (Really, my jealousy is reserved for my alter egos Dan Harris and Jonathan Lethem.) We could see Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) or first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)

Adapted Screenplay
Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard (Gone Baby Gone)
Paul T. Anderson (There Will be Blood)
Christopher Hampton (Atonement) <- my pick to win
Sean Penn (Into the Wild)
Sarah Polley (Away From Her)
I honestly have no idea about this pick; I'd think Anderson would have the best shot, but I predict Blood fatigue from voters who want to spread the love around. Hampton may benefit from Atonement's lack of awards, and from his storied career (Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American). Ben Affleck's chances would be good, if not for the screenplay Oscar he already has.

Best Foreign Film
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel) <- my pick to win
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungliu)
The Kite Runner
(Marc Forster)
Lust, Caution (Ang Lee)
La Vie en Rose / La Mome (Olivier Dahan)
Five very strong contenders. Will be interesting to see if Oscars and Cannes can agree on 4 Months.... It's a little silly that the Hollywood-connected Diving Bell and Kite Runner and Lust, Caution are eligible. Live-in Maid aka Cama Adentro aka Senora Beba came out in 2004 originally and isn't eligible.

Animated Film
Bee Movie
Ratatouille <- my pick to win
It seems that a film can indeed be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Film. Clearly its nomination here would effectively take it out of the running for Best Picture, but if included here, it will surely win.
Record from last year's predicted winners: 7-3

Last, a bit of Oscars trivia about the Best Actor category:

1. Easy: There have only been two films that have ever generated, each, three Best Supporting Actor nominations. No single actor was nominated for both films as a supporting actor, but one of the supporting actor nominees from the earlier film was nominated for a best actor award for the later film, playing the same character. What are the two films? Who is the actor who was nominated for both films? Can you name at least three of the six actors?

2. Medium: There are only a few actors who have been nominated for a Best Actor award two years in a row. For example, Spencer Tracy was nominated for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938), and won both. Can you name each actor, based on the films he was nominated for? And which shares the distinction with Tracy of being one of the only two actors to actually win back to back Best Actor awards?
A) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), On the Waterfront (1954)
B) East of Eden (1955), Giant (1956) - both nominations posthumous
C) Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960)
D) Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
E) Becket (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
F) The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969 - John Wayne beat him and another actor on this list)
G) The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1973)
H) Serpico (1975), Godfather Part II (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1974)
I) The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
J) The Dresser (1983), Under the Volcano (1984)
K) Awakenings (1990), Cape Fear (1991)
L) Philadelphia (1993), Forrest Gump (1994)
M) The Insider (1999), Gladiator (2000), A Beautiful Mind (2001)
N) Pirates of the Carribean (2003), Finding Neverland (2004)
3. Hard: There have been six films where two actors in the film were both nominated for the Best Actor award. The actors, in alphabetical order, are:
A) F. Murray Abraham
B) Richard Burton
C) Michael Caine
D) Tom Courtenay
E) Peter Finch
F) Albert Finney
G) Dustin Hoffman
H) Stephen Holden
I) Tom Hulce
J) Laurence Olivier
K) Peter O'Toole, and
L) Jon Voight.
The films were:
1) Becket (1964)
2) Midnight Cowboy (1969),
3) Sleuth (1972)
4) Network (1976)
5) The Dresser (1983), and
6) Amadeus (1984).
Can you match each film to its two actors?

Answers are below (hilight and copy, then paste elsewhere)

1. The Godfather, The Godfather Part II; Al Pacino; Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Robert De Niro, Michael V. Gazzo, Lee Strasberg

2. A: Marlon Brando; B: James Dean; C: Jack Lemmon; D: Spencer Tracy, again; E: Richard Burton; F: Peter O'Toole, beaten along with Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight; G: Marlon Brando (again), H: Al Pacino; I: Jack Nicholson; J: Albert Finney; K: Robert DeNiro; L: Tom Hanks, the only back: to: back winner; M: Russell Crowe; N: Johnny Depp

3. 1: B, K; 2: G, L; 3: C, J; 4: E, H; 5: D, F; 6: A, I

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Blogger Alice on Mon Jan 14, 04:24:00 PM:
I'd rather see PSH nominated for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead than for The Savages, but Daniel Day-Lewis is my pick, too, for Best Actor.

Since she won a Golden Globe last night and has picked up some other awards, do you think Marion Cotillard will be nominated for La Vie en Rose?

Judd Apatow wrote Knocked Up, not Seth Rogen. I would love to see Michael Cera nominated for Superbad.

James McAvoy had a much more interesting role in The Last King of Scotland than he did in Atonement, a movie that I thought was OK but not wonderful. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were both ambitious and successful movies, whereas I thought Atonement had ambitious sections (that tracking shot) and successful sections (the first half, the dying French soldier later in the movie), but never felt like it came together as both of those things.

Zodiac was my favorite film of last year, though I can see that it's a long shot for most Academy Award categories. I'd throw it in for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Mark Ruffalo if I could have my wishes granted.
Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 15, 07:59:00 AM:
I totally passed by Marion Cotillard. You're right. I'm going to replace Keri Russell.

Thanks for the correction of Rogen and Apatow.

I keep hearing mixed things about Atonement. I know it got a bajillion Golden Globe nominations and best dramatic picture, but I can't see it winning much at the Oscars this year.

I think Zodiac will suffer from being released to early in the year. (By the way, I read that a small amount of Hillary Clinton's success in New Hampshire can be chalked up to the advantage a candidate gets if her name appears first on the ballot. Crazy!)
Blogger Ben on Tue Jan 15, 08:15:00 AM:
By the way, it turns out the Oscars rules make it totally possible for two nominees to tie for the win, in which case both win. Unlikely, but possible!
Blogger Katy on Tue Jan 15, 10:37:00 AM:
After seeing almost everything that got nominated last year, I'm not doing nearly as well this year.

Part of the problem is that after a bad scare from Eastern Promises (it was too violent, and I had to flee the theater), I've been really chicken about some of the other likely contenders (No Country for Old Men, I'm looking at you). I also can't really get myself psyched up about seeing Atonement. I've read the book and can't really see how it would make a successful movie adaptation.

I did manage to see There Will Be Blood last weekend. Daniel Day Lewis was terrifying and certainly deserves to win Best Actor. The movie is weird enough that it could turn off some voters, though, and I agree that the Paul Dano character could have been fleshed out more, but I think he did a good job with what he had to work with.

I don't really take Juno seriously as an Oscar contender but I can see how it's the kind of movie that will end up contending because audiences like it and it's "quirky."
Blogger Ben on Sun Jan 20, 11:35:00 AM:
One more -- can you believe that last year, Children of Men won nothing at all? It was nominated for three categories, but not nominated for Best Picture (though Little Miss Sunshine and Babel were) or even Art Direction (edged out by such memorable art design as The Good Shepherd). In a generation or two, when people want to know what it felt like to look forward into the future from the 0's, Children of Men will still be watched, and the Best Picture nominees from 2006 won't be.
Blogger Ben on Sun Jan 20, 11:40:00 AM:
It's funny that you fled Eastern Promises, Katy, because by David Cronenberg standards it was pretty tame! More violent only maybe than his Spider.

Now that independent films (and big-budget independent-style films) are such big profit-makers in Hollywood (a small part of the total business but offering better return on investment than many big action movies), I think "quirky" films like Little Miss Sunshine will continue to have a representative in the Best Picture category. To Variety readers, that film and Juno were very big deals.
Blogger Katy on Wed Jan 23, 09:32:00 AM:
Ben, I think you're right about Children of Men.

I should have researched Eastern Promises better before I went to see it. My tolerance for that kind of psychologically tinged violence is low to nonexistent, and although I'd read the reviews, I guess I didn't know enough about Cronenberg. I've never seen his other movies, probably because they're so obviously not my bag that I never considered seeing them.
Blogger Ben on Wed Jan 23, 09:41:00 AM:
There should be a warning label on all ads for Cronenberg films: "Warning: in this director's past films, a dude's head has exploded, a woman has given birth to killer babies from a giant mutated womb, and people have had sex through an open wound."

Looks like I botched Best Director and Best Actor. Best Actress and a few other categories matched up decently. Thanks for the Marion Cotillard tip, Alice!
Blogger Alice on Thu Jan 24, 05:19:00 PM:
Let's not forget the horribly memorable scenes of the goldfish being boiled in its bowl, the children drowning in the icy lake, and the rapist's death by scissors in Cronenberg's The Dead Zone--one of my favorite movies. Can we agree that Cronenberg's Crash is better than Paul Haggis's Crash--wound-sex notwithstanding? Or, yeah, why not, I'll put that scene in as one of the reasons it's a thousand times more ambitious and interesting than anything in the 2005 Best Picture winner.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Scriveners and salvagers

There's an amazing story about the history of the oldest street in New York City in this week's New Yorker. I felt genuinely sorry to get to the end of the article because each twist in the story was so good. It's not available online, but there's additional audio content on the site. The author's friend Al Solomon, a junk and old document enthusiast, seems like the kind of person you want to know because he'll always come up with something: in this case, it's historical wood, scrap metal and marble, property deeds, newspaper articles, nineteenth-century manuscripts about sacred geometry, religious texts from nineteenth-century New York radical religious sects, curiously patterned bricks, and a million more things. There's a lovely riff on Melville in the story--Al Solomon guesses that Bartleby the Scrivener was written on the street, but he has only a few half-clues--and the whole story felt like something out of Melville, like a missing chapter of Moby Dick or The Confidence-Man. The story also reminded me of Paul Collins' The Trouble with Tom in its wonderful use of digressions, as if Al Solomon were guiding the story. This was one of my favorites:
The best reclaimed wood is finer than anything freshly cut, Al said. A few years earlier, he had sold me some old joists for a bookcase I was making. The wood was Southern longleaf pine, four inches thick and heavy with resin. It had twenty growth rings to the inch--twice as many as the plantation pine at Home Depot--and felt hard as oak. When I'd sanded and oiled it, the wood glowed a deep amber and looked nearly translucent. Afterward, Al sent me a Times article that he'd found online, about the building that the joists had been in. It was dated December 13, 1892. "All the shining lights of the east side political world assembled at the opening of the Comanche Club at 207 Bowery last night," it began. "Among those present were Mr. 'Silver Dollar' Smith, Mr. 'Dry Dollar' Sullivan... and Barney Rourke, the Napoleon of down-town politics."

The yard was full of such ghosts. Its two-acre lot was covered in piles of blackened boards and splintered beams, interspersed with stacks of new lumber. Al showed me some long, tapered joists from a schoolhouse built in the eighteen-fifties, and others from a nineteenth-century factory in Chinatown. The latter were Eastern white pine, hand-cut in Maine and hauled south by oxcart. The trunks were so long and unwieldy in those days, that the logging roads didn't turn left until they got to the city's latitude. Across the yard, a forklift had deposited a stack of lumber under a hangar to dry. Al pointed to some strips of molding, delicately fluted, about twelve feet up. They came from the Marquand stable, on East Seventy-third Street (now a two-family house), which was once owned by Joseph Pulitzer. "I call it Pulitzer Prize pine," Al said.

To Al's eyes, the city was a vast boneyard. There was enough old-growth timber buried in its buildings to make a national park, he said; enough stone to fill a thousand quarries. Sing Sing marble, Onodaga limestone, brownstone from Paterson, New Jersey, and Dorchester, Canada--the latter so hard it could hold an edge for a hundred years; everything cut too thick and built too stout, for fear it might not bear up in buildings of such dizzying height. Five full floors! Even the nails had stories to tell. They were hand-forged in the eighteenth century, slab-cut from strips of iron in the nineteenth, and snipped from rounded wires in the twentieth. Al dug them out with a crowbar and sent them to an iron yard. In the scrap business, history was just another raw material.

Brette and I went on the eighteenth-century New York walking tour a couple of years ago on the Fourth of July, and I was taken with the iron fence at Bowling Green. In 1776, George Washington's troops knocked down a statue of George III, which the fence had formerly surrounded. The tour guide told us that there used to be little iron crowns on the fence posts, and the troops had sawed those off, too. The statue was melted down to make bullets. I loved running my hand over the jagged edge on the fence. The African Burial Ground was also amazing.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mysterious manuscripts, vol. 1: There is no sunken treasure

When we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum this summer, I had to sit in the row behind my friend Graham because the movie theater was crowded. After every fight scene, he'd turn around and gape in wonder at how the movie could get more awesome. How awesome? Jason Bourne kills someone with a book in that movie. But our biggest "unbelievable!" moment came in the previews for National Treasure II: Book of Secrets.

So there's a book of presidential secrets, with documentation covering everything from notes on the Lincoln assassination to the Kennedy assassination? You know what might happen if you kept all the presidential secrets in the same place, in something as portable as a book? Someone who's not supposed to see it might try to find it. You should keep it in the Library of Congress under a call number. To be safe, make it a coded call number. You should also make a set of ciphers, secret boxes, and coded inscriptions in multiple scenic locales that lead predictably from one to the next so that someone could track the book if it were to fall into the wrong hands. Or the right hands! Because there are only a few people who can read Olmec symbols that tell you where to find the fabled city of gold, Cibola--and one of those translators is Helen Mirren, who happens to be Nicolas Cage's mom in the movie. She gets to swing on a vine. Mt. Rushmore is a cover-up.

Not all of this information is in the previews, but I don't think I've revealed any secrets in my excitement at relating the incredible conventions of the treasure hunt story. I love these stories because I'm fascinated by the ways that investigations work out in different genres--the crime procedural, the legal procedural, the older murder mystery, and especially the discovery of the mysterious manuscript. The mysterious manuscript gambit is my current obsession, so I have a whole set of blog posts planned about it. I like books and movies with this gambit because the plot follows some interesting conventions: globe-hopping, reading as almost always immediately productive of an intelligible end (reading as tracking clues), multiple readers who have different interpretative skills or ways of reading, good triumphing over evil in a fashion directly related to how one uses the manuscript or the map, and a fetish for difficult forms of reading such as deciphering, piecing together distressed pages, and tracking missing pages. The treasure hunt story is similar. I saw National Treasure II the other day, and while it's no Goonies or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade--the two movies to which it owes a lot of plot and booby-trap ideas--it's pretty good.

First, one more preview. There's a movie coming out soon about a girl and her father who objectify reading: whenever they read aloud, the words become objects that drop out of the sky into their room. Obviously, I am a big sucker for movie previews, because this trailer, too, sent me into paroxysms of excitement about hyper-literalized reading. It gets better because the movie has the adorable title of Inkheart! It's based on a young adult trilogy by Cornelia Funke, which I have not read yet.

So books in these movies can be lethal weapons, or they can bring forth demons from the literary world (as happens in Inkheart, so far as I can tell), or they can encode and then help decode secrets. These are all terribly exciting functions for a book to have, and they depend on the insistence that reading has a definite purpose. I have two favorite parts of National Treasure II: the first is a wonderful set piece about semi-kidnapping the president by playing to his interest, which we all apparently all share, in the promise of secrets being revealed in hidden passageways.

The other funny sub-story in the movie is the function of Thomas Gates' (Nicolas Cage) assistant's tawdry "expose of national secrets" book that he wrote after 2004's National Treasure. His potential customers at a big chain bookstore are disappointed to find out he's only a geeky writer, not Nicolas Cage--and even that guy doesn't read the book until halfway through the movie, when it becomes very useful because many of the exposed secrets are true. It's the kind of book that's always on sale at Barnes & Noble, where the untold secrets of the Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown couldn't tell you, or the real story of Area 51, or the Roswell cover-up will be revealed for only $9.95. I have a fondness for these books, for the way that they insist on the power of research and reading--if only there were more documents to read, then we'd know the full story.

Ben and I were talking about this obsession in relation to David Fincher's search for real-life evidence to solve the Zodiac murders during the filming of that movie. I've noted before that many of Fincher's movies take up the problem of what investigations are supposed to uncover, but it's especially fascinating in The Game, when Michael Douglas's character is assigned a puzzle but his discoveries reveal only artifacts of the investigative procedure. They're quite literally artifacts, since they've been manufactured beforehand as clues which lead in a particular direction that he is unaware of until the end, when it's reveal that the investigation was supposed to lead to hell for a particular purpose. Malcolm Gladwell introduced the idea of the puzzle vs. mystery in a New Yorker article last year about Enron. Summarizing and extrapolating from a law professor's argument about this distinction, Gladwell argued that people wanted Enron to be a puzzle, where all the pieces of who knew what when would fit together, but maybe it was more of a mystery, where the people in charge perhaps were not so culpable because even they did not know all of the information. Many, many people wrote in to Gladwell's blog to criticize this argument and point out the ways in which there were conscious cover-ups perpetrated with knowable and known consequences. Nevertheless, I remain interested in this distinction between puzzles and mysteries because it could be an interesting lens through which to consider how we understand the courses of investigations: Do they always have resolutions? Are the resolutions always findable--it's more likely that a book or a movie will be a puzzle than a mystery, but how could you make a mystery plot (in Gladwell's distinction) that yielded some sense of resolution for the audience? What types of resolutions are satisfactory? What does satisfactory even mean?

These questions get resolved in multiple ways in the mysterious manuscript genre: I'm interested in how many books and movies end with the manuscripts being forgeries, where the resolution is in dissatisfaction. That a map or a manuscript is a forgery does collapse the possible uses and interpretations, doesn't it? Are there other things you can do with a forgery than feel disappointed? One of the other conventional resolutions to the treasure hunt movie is the destruction of the treasure, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's another form of dissatisfaction, as is the finding of the treasure only to encounter ruin, as in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

The John Huston movie is in a different league than National Treasure, to say the least, but that story, too, has its own mysteries and puzzles. The attempts to discover author B. Traven's identity are related to the resolving authorship in a mysterious manuscript. Don't you want David Fincher to take up this story next--he could doggedly track down all the possible aliases for the German author, accounts of his time in Mexico and his disguise to meet Huston as they were filming Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the rumors that he was Jack London or a Dadaist artist. There are a lot of "I've found B. Traven's real identity!" investigations floating around on Amazon and Google, and they always seem focused on that elusive problem of singular identity rather than the possibly also interesting phenomenon of how some questions about authorship may be mysteries rather than puzzles. Not for nothing does the Wikipedia article compare B. Traven to the elusive Thomas Pynchon, the author of my favorite investigation novel of all time, The Crying of Lot 49, which ends on its own weird, wonderful note of unsatisfactory resolution. What if his heart is only made of ink? "Wrapped inside my ribs in a sea black with ink"?

Or what if the treasure is "the light in the heart," the oblique last line of Virginia Woolf's treasure hunt story, "A Haunted House." We had to read this story in English class when I was in high school as an example of problems of interpretation. I must say I'm still unsure about how the stream of consciousness works in the story, except that someone's reading--but it's unclear who's doing what when and where:
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.

But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room. . .” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?

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