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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dark chocolate peanut butter Batman

I saw The Dark Knight a couple of weeks ago and thought it was very good. Batman Returns has always been my favorite Batman movie because Michele Pfeiffer is amazing as Catwoman, but the differences between Tim Burton's take and Christopher Nolan's take are instructive. Burton's Gotham was a closed system with few gestures to the world outside of the film. Nolan is more ambitious in scope, so the film feels like it's trying out some exciting directions for the superhero, even if not all of those directions work. I've had several conversations with people lately about Where Batman is Going:

Ben looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him why Batman Begins was obsessed with exploring Batman's psychology through his origin story. I might as well have asked, Why is Law & Order predictable down to the minute? Why do the main characters in romantic comedies have to break up at least once in the story? I get it, I get it: it's a convention, one that's high on the hierarchy of generic features of the comic book.

But there's an interesting moment in the middle of The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent is about to torture one of the fake cops who's kidnapped Rachel Dawes, and he keeps asking the guy why he did it. Batman swoops in and says (in his distractingly distorted voice) that the guy is a paranoid schizophrenic, and he's not going to be able to give a satisfactory motive or reason for what he did. Would it matter why the goon did it? He's matched by the Joker's switching his "why am I evil?" backstory at every moment of violence, so that the multiple explanations are equally grim, banal, and useless. Motiveless malignancy works, we know from countless examples, but does why does heroism inspire ambivalence? The two heroes of the movie, the White Knight and the Dark Knight, are obsessed with understanding the root of their neurosis. The excess is supposed to be instructive for showing the depth of Two-Face's and Batman's ambivalence about heroism (turned to villainy in the former case), but the movie just wouldn't end while they analyzed themselves.

I just read two crime procedurals with mild twists in them, but the twists were overshadowed by the hoary convention of having the killers explain themselves and their motives in very specific detail at the end of each novel. That one detective can make the sure assessment that someone was obviously a sociopath takes some of the interest out of the characters, as though the whole thing turns into a diagnosis and not a story. Gotham is a city populated by sociopaths and nihilists, I know, but is that really the most interesting thing you can say about it? Where do you go from there?

So I'm vacillating between knowing that it's a convention that I shouldn't harp on and trying to figure out its function. Can you call it psychological depth if it's a rehearsal of a conventional explanatory mode? It's an effect, not something that's inherently compelling about the character.

(You might also say that the How Can Gotham Be Politically Relevant to Today? moves that Nolan makes--wiretapping, FISA, torture, how trying to stop terror foments it, what the ordinary populace will do to protect themselves at all costs--are in a similar category of obviousness. Some of those directions work in the movie, but I'm a little wary of having movies prove things rather than explore them. Many of those politically relevant topics get shoehorned into comic book conventions such as Lucius Fox's rejection of technological overreaching, the ferry-boat scene of people showing innate goodness/badness which gets frustratingly close to becoming a reductive retelling of the Milgram experiment, and so on. But do those situations show anything new about the subject--or the convention itself?)

Heath Ledger is an extraordinary Joker. He was interesting and different in every scene.

How about that William Fichtner cameo as the mob bank boss in the beginning! I wish he had had a bigger role--he's perfect for a Batman movie. Oh well.

Maggie Gyllenhaal was miscast. It's a thankless role, but she wasn't right for it. That became especially clear in the scene where they're about to set up the conspiracy charges for all the criminals: it's obvious that the move is going to create serious blowback, and Aaron Eckart does a good job of telegraphing this with his smug smile from behind the two-way glass. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal's character) bounces around glibly and is obviously proud of getting the suspect, so she, too, has misjudged the gravity of the situation, but it comes off as unprofessional and immature. Her character doesn't act like that in other situations in the movie, so this behavior seemed inconsistent.

And her costumes? In a nice Tim Gunn moment, Lucius Fox tells Bruce Wayne that "three buttons is a little '90s"--someone should have said that to Rachel Dawes. Those suits were terrible, particularly the one with the wide collar (from the interrogation scene) that looked like Vincent's design for Uli's mom on Season 3 of Project Runway (an inexplicable winner from that episode). I think I tried on that wine-colored suit from her courtroom scene when I was 16.

From bitchy comments about suits to the utterly frivolous: Has anyone seen the bat-shaped dark chocolate Reese's peanut butter cups? I'm a sucker for chocolate-summer blockbuster tie-ins: even though I never saw any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, I was delighted by the white chocolate "pirate's pearl" M&Ms a few summers ago.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bill James and the lemur

So did Bill James see a lemur prowling the streets of Boston or didn't he? I loved the tack that Ben McGrath takes in his New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about James's mysterious sighting... but it seemed halfway finished. Why did it end when it did? Actually, I don't want my question from the first sentence to answered; I don't mean that we should have found out at the end whether James had indeed seen a lemur. But if McGrath is going to make the connection between James's search for the lemur and his search for sometimes elusive stats about, say, clutch hitting, then he needs to follow through on his swing. So James needs to combine information from multiple sources--cryptozoology blogs, newspaper archives, personal accounts, and queries to others who might have seen the lemur? And that's in some ways similar to crunching data in new ways or making projections which others may ridicule? I like it.

But I want more!

It may be that I'm teaching Melville's Moby-Dick right now and can't think of much else--maybe a monomania--but McGrath's story seemed like a small, funny version of the book, which I'm teaching as being about recombining multiple forms of information in an attempt to grasp something elusive. With James's sabermetrics in mind, you can think of Ahab's retracing over his charts to try to predict the location of a single whale and his insistence that prediction is possible by recombining data in heretofore untried ways. Or there's the narrative style itself, as Melville describes his project as necessarily gigantic because the scope of the subject cannot be contained:
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Last fall, Levi Stahl wrote a great appreciation of James's expansive style that reminds me of what one could say about Melville's 'placard capitals' (James is writing about C.C. Sabathia):
James is a writer who would benefit from a good editor, yet he rarely seems to work under one: he's as perceptive as anyone who's ever written about the game and has a knack for a memorable phrases, but his writing frequently threatens to become too casual for the ideas it's trying to convey. Here, though, his breathless tone is perfectly suited to his subject, and it hits exactly the note I find myself striving for when describing favorite players.

So I wanted more of an ending than this from McGrath's article:
“I decided to report the sighting, against the urgings of my wife, who thought that I would get a reputation as a nut,” James explained in a recent e-mail. “I assume, if people start making fun of me for seeing a lemur, other people will step forward and say, ‘I saw something, too.’ ” No such luck yet.

Andrew Mudge, when reached by phone recently, assumed the call to be a prank. “Let me get this straight: you’re calling me about the lemur I saw in 2002?” he asked. “Which one of my friends put you up to this?” Mudge then recalled that he’d received an e-mail from a man named Bill James, but hadn’t paid it much attention. “I just remember having this gut feeling that this animal does not belong in this part of the world,” he wrote in an e-mail, thinking back to his sighting. “Ironically, I was leaving the house to go to a Red Sox game when this happened.”

Or, maybe it's a fitting ending to a story about uncertainty of knowledge (and sightings, and coordinating information from multiple sources): someone else doesn't share the same enthusiasm and chalks up the strangeness to a coincidence rather than something greater.

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Blogger Levi Stahl on Tue Jul 29, 09:59:00 PM:
This post made me laugh because, bizarrely enough, last night, despite not knowing about the New Yorker piece (our New Yorkers arrive late here in the Midwest), I thought about:

1 Bill James, because he loves
2 C. C. Sabathia, who was pitching in the baseball game I was watching,
3 Lemurs, because I'd just learned that Byron had one, and
4 Moby-Dick, because I was trying to draw on my love of its sprawling immensity to make me more receptive to the potential charms of Infinite Jest, which I was reading.

And I love that reading of Moby-Dick as "recombining multiple forms of information in an attempt to grasp something elusive." Such a helpful way to think about it!
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jul 30, 12:10:00 PM:
Bill James is on 'shrooms. The weasel, fisher, of skinny racoon he saw was not a ring-tailed lemur.

Another place where lemurs and baseball come together is our myspace music page -- where you can literally hear a song about lemurs, the 2004 Red Sox, and the pre-roids scandal Sammy Sosa. It's all there, baby!
Blogger Alice on Wed Jul 30, 02:40:00 PM:
I'm teaching Moby-Dick and Gravity's Rainbow together in a class about the encyclopedic novel. My dad suggested that I replace Pynchon with David Foster Wallace. So maybe DFW gets more readable with Melville in mind?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

How do you say 'willing suspension of disbelief' in French?

If you go see Tell No One, the new French movie based on the best-selling crime novel by Harlan Coben, you have to ask for your tickets in a melodramatic hushed tone. That's what I did and I had a great time. I kept thinking, I wouldn't be buying a minute of this if I were reading it: Alex Beck believes his wife was murdered eight years previous but begins to receive mysterious messages that show her to possibly be alive and then gets tangled up into other murder investigations--but the film is totally fun. It reminded me in some ways of Diva, an amazing French crime procedural with secret recordings and messages that get mixed up among various messengers and interceptors, and another story that requires a significant amount of suspended disbelief. Andrew O'Hehir jokes around on Salon about the unlikely transfer from American best-seller to French art house:
When the inevitable English-language version follows, it will provoke a trivia question (and one I can't answer, at least not without more Internet spelunking than I'm willing to do right now): Name other American movies inspired by foreign-language films based on American novels.

Salon readers suggested A Fistful of Dollars (from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, based in part on the Dashiell Hammett novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (from the French film Purple Noon, based on Patricia Highsmith's series). I'm not sure that the second one counts since the Anthony Minghella film wasn't really a remake of the French movie; another Salon reader was skeptical of A Fistful of Dollars being included because it had only an American star, but wasn't an American movie.

My stab at a trivia question related to the movie--really, just a noting of a weird coincidence: how many other films is Marie-Josee Croze going to be in this year with songs from U2's Achtung Baby playing at crucial moments?

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is it G-R-R-L or G-R-R-R-L?

Question overheard this afternoon during a librarian's presentation about the Barnard zine collection (topics discussed: DIY culture, punk rock, librarians and zines, riot grrl and its influence, the issues of preserving and cataloging ephemera, etc.):

"Is it RIOT G-R-R-L or G-R-R-R-L?"

(I seem to remember this question being a debated issue in whatever I was reading as an Albuquerque outsider in the 1990s--like three R's were sellouts or vice versa? Or is that an imagined style guide/ anti-normalizing, anti-style guide debate? And yes, it's funny to me that style guide and distribution/preservation/cataloging issues related to riot grrl are what fascinate me now...)

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Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Jul 17, 09:57:00 PM:
The grrl/grrrl spelling is not only an issue for cataloging, but for IPR. Catherine Driscoll, in "Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory," reports that a patent was involved:

"The Riot Grrrl e-zine apparently changed its name from three to two rrs in order to patent "RiotGrrl," prompting outrage...."

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Esalen in the line of fire

The Esalen Institute is a difficult thing to explain: idyll in the wilderness around Big Sur, California; farm where seekers look for meaning through hard work; influential driver of innovation in psychotherapy, massage, and all things new age. Click on the image below and you can see it, stretched along the water between California's Highway 1 and the Pacific:
To the east is the great Ventana Wilderness, full of redwoods and pine and unmapped hot springs streams. Zoom out a little and you can start to see how vast it is, and how tiny Esalen and the other Big Sur settlements are in comparison:
Right now, that wilderness is on fire. The fire is moving towards Esalen. And my father, one of the people who helps run the place, has no plans to leave.

Over the past few days he's sent out updates; they're not quite public, but I hope he won't mind my sharing excerpts here. I need to, out of worry.

Not that I should be worried. There's a rich tradition of the Esalen community rallying to keep forest fires at bay; when the "big one", a fire in 1985 that destroyed tens of thousands of acres, came right down to the highway, close enough for a few stray embers to fly across and catch on Esalen property, Esalen folks formed bucket brigades and cleared brush like mad, and outlasted the fire in an epic slugfest. (They'd had practice during the 1977 Marble Cone fire in Big Sur.)

What I love most about my father's dispatches is that in this crisis, like in those before, the Esalen spirit -- enormous concern for people's balance and well-being, repeating your guiding values to make sure that you are following them, the wellspring of acupuncture for firemen -- comes through so clearly:

Friday, June 27
We are in no immediate danger here, for say the next 48 hours, while the fire works its way slowly, under these conditions, westward down the canyons toward the coast. A change in winds can of course change this at any time.
Western fire defense perimeter is Highway One itself. In the very best outcome, the marine cover remains in place for some days, moistening the canyons at low altitudes, the two fires meet and extinguish along the southern boundary.
Meanwhile, Esalen is located exactly between the two advancing firelines...

The best map I could find; Esalen is located right above the Highway 1 sign. As of this writing, the Basin Complex Fire is moving south; the Indians Fire is moving west. If the map is accurate, it puts the Indians Fire at about 10 miles wide.

Our Esalen team of designated firefighters will work with and in support of [the] primary professional force. Our primary team consists of a crew of 19 training now to work together in defense of South Coast [Esalen cabins] and/or our first Esalen vulnerable sites.
Our priorities continue to be: 1) safety of people first; 2) protecting the Esalen property wherever possible without compromising #1; and 3) ongoing management.

Currently about 95 staff and others are choosing to remain on property, both to defend the campus itself when and if the fire does come down to the coast here, and also to support our primary team of firefighters... everyone currently still here is choosing to be here. Anyone with respiratory distress or any respiratory/circulatory disease is being specifically asked to leave now...

Spirits are tense but high here, with everyone stepping up, student massage practitioners offering free sessions under the coordination of displaced refugees [names omitted] -- today [name omitted] made it down from Coastlands to show support at our daily community meeting and also to offer free acupuncture to those suffering from respiratory or other stress.
We continue to provide refuge for about 8 neighbors who have been evacuated from their houses...

Thanks to all for all your messages and good wishes. With gratefulness and with prayers for all those suffering loss or danger - Gordon

Saturday, June 28
Last night around nine fire was sighted in many places coming over the [nearby ridge], moving in a transverse line slowly down the hill toward South Coast [Esalen cabins]...

Meanwhile we could see the truth of what Division Chief Brian Savage had told us yesterday morning -- that the fog blanket would stop the advance of the flames, or at least slow it drastically. [Two Big Sur residents] told me early this morning that they had watched the flames die to an invisible smolder as the moist blanket rolled back up. The fire is still there of course, and once the day warms up and the fog lifts (as it looks like it will in a few hours), the flames will resume advancing down the hill, in both Burns Creek and Hot Springs Canyon.

Everything now depends on the weather...

Spirits are good, [Esalen CEO] Harry plans to encourage all, especially the first responder team, to take as much time off today as possible, to be rested and ready to go tonight or more likely tomorrow.

Sunday, June 29:
With clearing skies this afternoon we can see smoke coming over the ridge in Hot Springs Canyon, as well as plumes of smoke on this side of the top of the canyon -- still quite high up.

At some 35,000 acres and growing, the fire has at last been declared a Federal Emergency, triggering more federal resources and FEMA funds. Over 1000 firefighters are now in the area, with more than 50 big rigs, countless other vehicles, and now some air support.

To the south, word today is that the Fire Service has abandoned their firebreak at Dolan Canyon as either unsustainable or already breached (we're not certain which)...

Esalen continues to be on "pre-evacuation alert." If mandatory evacuation is ordered, there are some 60 of us who are committed to stay here no matter what, either to fight the fire or to support the teams who do. Air masks presumably arrive tomorrow.

Spirits continue to be high and determined here on the campus. Young people not having changed in the past 40 years that I know of, the main complaint I hear out of management is that some people do not seem to be necessarily sleeping in their newly assigned rooms, but are rather elsewhere and thus not easily accountable in a nighttime emergency.... [A staff member] promises a veil of absolute confidentiality if people will divulge to her where they are actually overnighting, in case of an all-property alert during the night. Meantime, we trust in the deafening alarm signal we have here on double electrical backup... Two blasts for first responders; three for everyone on property to go to the oval for instructions.

Today a team of our clearing crew was scheduled to be up on the Hudson Ranch foaming houses there (again, it's not something we can do here ahead of time, as the foam has a limited effective life once it's sprayed on -- so they're learning the process up there, while helping neighbors at the same time)…

Enough for now! appreciation and regards to all, and endless kudos to the dedicated core team remaining here on property. - Gordon

That is the last I have heard from him. My sister called just now, a little after midnight, to say that the authorities have ordered mandatory evacuation of Esalen and other nearby areas, and that he has decided to stay. It's especially alarming because at the time of his last email he didn't seem to think an evac was likely, so I wonder what changed and how much worse the outlook has gotten.

Dad, I wish I were there with you. Everyone at Esalen, stay safe, and keep being ridiculously supportive of those around you while you fight the fire! Or rather, as my father would emphasize, in order to fight the fire. (My sister would add: but don't be supportive of the fire. At least not now. Admire its primal wisdom later.)

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Blogger Ben on Thu Jul 03, 12:42:00 AM:
Update of Tuesday, July 1:

Yesterday evening we were visited by the Sheriff, bringing the notice of mandatory evacuation for everyone... What that really means is that after 5 pm today, no more cars will be allowed in or out of the sealed, evacuated sector.
This leaves a core group of our 19 designated, trained First Responder Teams, plus several backups -- along with about an equal number of the rest of our core group who are in service and support to that team, to the property here, and to the professional firefighting unit we have staying up at South Coast [Esalen cabins], and taking their meals here with us...

At the Sheriff's instruction, each of us staying on property is required to sign a form for the Sheriff's records, indicating that we have been informed that the area is sealed, and are voluntarily declining the evacuation order.

...Yesterday [we] were joined by a dozen young men from the CDC (Correctional Facilities) -- guys serving sentence-release or community service time for low-level convictions. Not as skilled and effective as our Esalen team or the professional firefighters (who clear brush in their down time) -- but a willing crew with a good spirit.

John Murphy and I had a good chat with their team captain up at the tanks, a solid middle-aged guy in a fire service uniform, with a straight-ahead attitude. We asked him how it was, supervising a CDC crew. "Never a dull moment," was his answer. "Basically good guys, some have never held a job or showed up for work before. Every five minutes somebody needs a hug, a bandaid, or a disciplinary action." John and I agreed it sounded like any regular group of young adult males to us...

All the crews tell us it's one world down here under the marine layer, and another world entirely up above 1500 or so feet. Hot, dry, windier, with fire active and on the move, while down here it continues just to send fingers down the canyons, here and there suddenly igniting and rushing back up the hill, only to probe slowly down again. (You learn a lot of things in the course of this -- one of them being the axiom that absent a tailwind, fire creeps downhill, rushes uphill. This is because on an uphill slope, as heat from the flames rises, the firefront is preheating its fuel as it goes).
Current strategy: contain it with dozer firebreaks in the North, up near Pico Blanco at the top of Palo Colorado Canyon; join it to the (mostly burned over) Indians Fire of a couple of weeks ago to the East and Southeast; hold it if possible at the Dolan Ridge backfire to the South, and stop the fire at Highway One up and down the coast to the West. But to get it out of the hills, it first has to be allowed to burn down to Highway One, defending and sparing as many structures as possible that lie on the east side of the highway. That's what we're waiting for now.

As we wait, every night our 22 guest firefighters drag into dinner from the day in the brush, and the dining room erupts in cheers and applause. Matt and his kitchen crew are plainly outdoing themselves because these amazing guys are here (last night spareribs and chocolate mousse), and everybody cheers again when they drag off early to bed. Yesterday morning they told us when they came in that evening they would be wanting a group photo of themselves and the whole community here, out on the oval in front of their trucks. They say they're simply overwhelmed by the warmth and reception here, and we're hearing similar stories up and down the Big Sur coast. You know what the saying is around here -- Big Sur is not just a place, it's a state of mind. A lot of crusty individuals, according to tradition here -- but when they do take you in, they take you in deep.

(My own feeling is more like what, these amazing guys don't normally get appreciated when they come in to save folks' homes?? It's actually sort of sobering, how sincerely surprised and moved they seem to be, by the simple gesture of giving them a real bed to sleep in, showers and dinner and breakfast, and a supply of quarters recycled out of the laundry machines, for washing the poison oak off their things).

In the wider community, with no other guests here, Esalen's bounteous gardens have excess produce these days, which we're selling locally where we can, while distributing most of it to shelters and firefighters that are set up down south of here. Each day Esalen's Rachel Fann (mother of Jason and Robin, grandmother of several of our youngest community members), who is volunteering as a chef in a shelter to the south, stops by and fills her trunk with fresh vegetables for soup for lunch. It's a harrowing time, for many more than for us so far -- and a warm time too, as neighbors take care of neighbors, and often help each other keep up their spirits and prep and save their homes.
A wrench for many of our Esalen community is saying goodbye today to their friends and family (or near-family) here and heading on up the hill toward town, in advance of the sealing of the road at 5:00. We're emphasizing that for everyone, it's not a matter of staying and serving Esalen, or leaving that service... No one serves by putting their own health at risk; in case of any physical distress, or just because you're not essential right now on property, then you serve best by taking care of your own health and energy, so as to come back fresh next week (or the next), when we'll need all our friends and family with fresh energy, more than ever.

To all our friends out there, thanks for your wellwishes and support. We'll be in touch -- regards to all, and prayers for the safety and care of all in distress or danger.