Monday, March 31, 2008

The Great Movies: "Detour"

At the Movies with Michael5000



Detour
Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945.

The important thing to realize about The Great Movies, the Roger Ebert book that I've been serially second-guessing on this blog, is that it doesn't claim to list the 100 greatest movies of all time. It's just a list of 100 movies that Ebert really likes or admires, for one reason or another. It includes a healthy handful of films that, Ebert is quick to admit, are a long way from total cinematic excellence.

Such a movie is Detour, made in six days on what was very obviously the sparest of budgets. Detour features cinematography that could best be described as "affordable," acting that is only a notch away from the soap operas, and editing that calls attention to itself. It has an abrupt, ungainly beginning, and it ends abruptly just when things seem to be getting interesting. And yet, Mr. Ebert finds it memorable and charming.

Well, so do I. The story line is a fairly simple and well-trod ~Guy Gets In Trouble, and Then Gets In Deeper~ sort of formula, but it is an effectively crafted (although not especially plausible) version. Plus, we are yet again in film noir territory, and there's something about cheap production values that is kind of ennobled by noir, or vice versa. It brings out the grit. You've got the jazz, the weak man, the femme fatale, the dark secrets, all told with a hard-boiledness that you can either enjoy on its own terms, or take as campy fun, depending on your preferences.

Plot: A guy hitchhiking out to the West Coast to get back together with his girlfriend gets picked up by a mysterious stranger. Dark things happen, a woman with a wealth of inconvenient knowledge shows up, and pretty soon they face that question that we all must so often deal with: whether to just ditch the evidence, or to try for the big score.

The movie is told in flashback, and can accommodate two readings. The narrator could be telling the truth, or, he could be lying through his teeth. You assume the former while you are watching, since you are seeing the action that goes with his story, but the plot actually makes more sense if he's lying.

Visuals: Cheap! Cheap! But competent.

Dialogue: The great thing about B-movie noir dialogue is that it is so darn euphemistic. Characters who would in a natural setting be swearing like rappers couldn't say so much as a "damn" in 1945, so screenwriters had to get really inventive to come up with invective for them to hurl at each other. It's fun to watch.

Prognosis: You can live without seeing this one, and if you are allergic to black and white, you might as well. If you like noir, though, this is (as I just found out myself) a good entertainment for a rainy day.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekend Edition

The Funnies


Fairly conventional funnies this week.... Niece #2 introduced me to "Basic Instructions" last summer, and I've been following the strip online since. It's a twice-weekly sort of affair. Drawn by Scott Meyer in a spare, text-heavy style, and always addressing an issue of practical concern ("How to Confound Your Alien Captor"), the 'Instructions are usually pretty amusing.






The Weekend Diversion

I have spoken of Dice Wars before in this chronicle, but it returns now as the Weekend Diversion. I have not been able to stop playing this game in the half-year since I discovered it. The intoxicating feel of a sprawling "4x" strategy game, but it only takes about 10 minutes. What could be more practical for Today's Busy Lifestyle?

The Quiz End-of-Season Wrap-Up

At the end of previous Quiz seasons, I've prepared a visual representation of the leaders' trophy cases. But frankly, that took forever. Besides, there's the L&TM5K Leaderboard now, so you can always check out who's who anytime you want. But still, this is a good time to salute the leaders:

The Thursday Quiz

After thirty Thursday Quizzes, Rex Parker still holds a strong lead in total number of Stars, with 15. Behind him is Mrs.5000, with 11; Rebel, with 9; and drschnell, with 8.

In the third season (TQXXI-TQXXX), drschnell led the way in Star production, with 6. Mrs.5000 and Cartophilia trailed a bit behind him, with 4 apiece; Boo had 3.

It's still a tie in the overall race for Gold Stars, with Blythe, Phineas, and Cartophilia locked in at 3 apiece. In the third season, though, Cartophilia set the pace; all three of his Golds came in the last ten quizzes, with the remaining seven Gold Stars split between seven different contestents.

The Monday Quiz

After twenty Monday Quizzes, Mrs.5000 has collected an impressive 7 Exclamation Points. Phineas and Chance are behind her with 5 apiece, and Becky and d right on their heels with 4 apiece.

Mrs.5000 and Phineas split the second season honors with 4 Exclamation Points apiece; behind them, there were six contestents with 2 E.P.s to their credit.

And...

With that, we will roll seamlessly into MQXXI on Monday.


Speculation

I am willing to bet that, because I used the Roman numeral for thirty, the recent post titled "The Thursday Quiz XXX" will become the L&TM5K post most often accessed through random Googling. If my prediction is correct, it will replace the post "Indulgent Uncle, Preteen Nieces," which is currently far and away my most Googled item. Yes, friends, there are some real creepy folks among us, here on the Internet.


The Semiotics of Facial Hair: An Album


I started last Saturday looking like this:


There were many stops on the way to the clean-shaven state. At each of them, I felt more or less the same inside, but would, I think, have seemed like a much different kind of person to an independent observer.


Facial hair, and its shaping, conveys powerful messages about one's social position and conceptions. There are styles of facial hair that, combined with a certain range of personalities, create a sort of semiotic dissonance.

And then there are styles that, because they have acquired special signification through historical associations, are really just not a good idea for anyone.


I finished the afternoon looking like this. Was I still the same person I had been two hours before?

Happy Weekend!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

We Caught Dengue Fever


There's been a lot of buzz about Dengue Fever floating around with the release of their third album, so the day may yet come when you don't have to give a lengthy description of the concept every time you want to talk about them. But I hope not, because explaining the concept is kind of fun.

So what it is, is, that these rock guys in L.A. found some old records from the garage rock scene in Cambodia, of all places, in the 1960s. They really loved the sound, and wanted to recreate it. Problem was, they didn't speak Cambodian. So, they knocked around in L.A.'s Southeast Asian community until they found a young singer with awesome chops: Chhom Nimol, who is actually a well-known traditional singer among Cambodian-Americans and, people in the community tell me, among Cambodian-Cambodians as well. Then, all they had to do was convince her to commit to, you know, singing rock music for drunk people in clubs for very little profit, for an indefinite future and with little hope of sucess. These guys should have been in sales.

I love Dengue Fever -- Mrs.5000 and I had their first record playing at our wedding reception -- but it's tough to describe their music in words. The official band line is that it is Cambodian garage rock crossed with Ethiopian jazz, but, you know, whatever. A Thai friend once demanded to know where we had got our hands on "Thai country music," and was then surprised when we pointed out that the lyrics aren't in Thai. It's really kind of like cheesy surf music, except awesome. It is played with great precision and inventiveness. And then you've got Nimol's voice, which flares out over the songs with groovy unexpected Southeast Asian tonalities. Well, like I said, it's hard to describe in words.

It's fun to see them live. Everybody in the band always seems like they are having fun, which I like a rock show. Nimol dresses to the nines, whether they are playing some closet of a bar or a larger venue; the show we caught last Friday was at the very cool Wonder Ballroom in Inner Northeast. She adds a repertoire of Asian dance moves to a basic girl-group performance style, the effect is sexy and wholesome and loveable all at the same time. She was having some trouble with her voice and had to give up some of the high notes on Friday, but after an evening of whooping encouragement to the band I had some trouble with my own voice over the weekend, too, so it all evens out.

The opening band was Black Moth Super Rainbow, who essentially played ambient music really, really loud as stupid video clips were projected on a makeshift screen over their heads. Their music had some merit, but a little of it went a long way. Mrs.5000 reported that, "from the bar, they sounded like a train going by."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXX

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always the Principle of Common Law:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will have to make it on their own.
This Week's Category will take it all the way to, well, you!

Real and Bogus at the (U.S.) Supreme Court

These are all important Supreme Court cases, all right. Except some of them happened more or less as described here, and others have been extruded through the michael5000 plausible nonsense machine. Which ones are correct as described?

1. Marbury v. Madison (1803) The case itself involves relatively trivial issues about the commissioning of Justices of the Peace, but the implications of the case will be huge. In Marbury, the Court asserts its own ability to declare laws unconstitutional. This pretty much defines the role the Supreme Court has filled in more recent times, a role that however has no particular basis in the Constitution.

2. Dred Scott v. Sandford, the "Dred Scott Case" (1857) A Court split largely along regional lines finds that African-Americans who live or have lived in free states are full citizens entitled to equal protection under the law. Because this decision threatens the practice of slavery, it will be a direct cause of Southern succession and the Civil War.

3. The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States (1890) The Court upholds an Act of Congress that dissolves the Mormon church and authorizes the seizure of its assets and property because of its advocacy of polygamy. Later that year, the church's president has a religious vision that instructs him to denounce the practice. He does, and the LDS church is allowed to reincorporate and retain its property.

4. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) In a case testing state laws that required the separation of blacks and whites in public places, the Court finds that the notion that segregation is in any way unfair is downright silly. For the next 60 years or so, "separate but equal" is the law of the land in the Southern states.

5. Korematsu v. United States (1944) The Court rules that internment camps set up to imprison Americans of Japanese descent during World War II are "an unconscionable violation of citizens' rights" and therefore unconstitutional. Deliberately slow implementation of the Court's order to disband the camps will mean that inmates are released only two weeks before the end of the war.

6. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court now rejects the idea of "separate but equal" with respects to education. Schooling students separately on the basis of their race, the court says, is an inherently discriminatory practice, and therefore unconstitutional.

7. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) Considering a seldom-enforced Connecticut law against selling contraceptives, the Court finds the law unconstitutional because it violates a right to privacy that, although never directly stated, is kind of implied by the Bill of Rights.

8. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) The Miranda Case establishes the right of law enforcement officials to search any private or public property whenever a "reasonable person" would suspect that a crime had either just occurred or was "imminent."

9. Roe v. Wade (1972) In a case that turns on the question of whether a fetus is or is not a citizen, the Court decides that it is not, and that therefore the states may not enact any laws restricting the availability of abortion.

10. South Dakota v. Dole (1987) In this case, the specifics of which deal with highway funding and legal drinking age, the Court declares that the Federal government can not under any circumstances use its financial resources -- the so-called "power of the purse" -- to force states to enact particular laws.

11. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) The Court determines that the Boy Scouts organization was within its rights to dismiss a gay assistant Scoutmaster. The organization's Constitutional right to freedom of association, which implies the right to exclude as well as include members, was held to outweigh the Scoutmaster's protection, by state statute, against discrimination.

12. Bush V. Gore (2000) Faced with an ambiguous vote in Florida upon which the 2000 Presidential election hinges, the Court dictates that the principle of "One Man, One Vote" and the essential nature of democracy require that every effort be made to determine the correct result of the election. As a result, the nation endures a long, grueling recount before an unambiguous winner of the Florida popular vote is finally declared.


Submit your answers in the comments while the Justices interupt you every five seconds.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Monday Quiz XX

Sport

1. These men are playing ____________.

2. These people are playing ________________.


3. These American women are ________________.


4. These Irish men are ________________.

5. These men are not playing rugby. They are playing ___________________.



Aim well and true, and submit your answers in the comments.

Note: The correct answer for number three and for number four will be the name of a sport (which is in both cases also the active verb form for participating in that sport), not a smart-alecky adjective.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Weekend Edition

The Funnies

Followers of the Bible Blog may have heard me talk before about The Brick Testament. It is a warm, funny, and often strangely beautiful telling of the Bible, or at least big chunks of it -- in Lego. Really. It is neither especially reverent or especially irreverent, and the material is given a lot of zip by the unusual medium but also by a generous dash of wit. Very diverting.



The Weekend Diversion

If the Decemberists had been assigned to remake Donkey Kong, but didn't really remember it very well, they might have produced something like Treasure Box. It is not going to win any awards for gameplay, but as an interesting and kind of surreal experience it is good bookish fun.



Wedding Announcements



I saw this conjunction of blog topics, like a little story, on my Reader list this week:


The second from the bottom is about my friend and occasional L&TM5K commenter Jenny J's
impending nuptuals. Huzzah! and congratulations!


Song of the Weekend

Mike Doughty's "27 Jennifers," the new version off of Golden Delicious, in a video featuring twenty-seven actual Jennifers!




....might be the strange delightful.


And...

That is all. Now I'm going to go shave off the beard.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Forgotten Lands: Dheshet and Al Farif

OK, something new.


Several years ago, I started a creative project called Geography of the Forgotten Lands. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Milorad Pavich’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Forgotten Lands was going to be my attempt to horn in on then-Girlfriend5000’s art turf. There was an upcoming bookarts show with a flag theme, and my idea was to create a set of sixteen imaginary countries, print descriptions of them onto fabric, sew their flags from standard fabrics, and to bind these “pages” inside an old-fashioned accounting ledger. It would have been cool, and it was great fun to work on the imaginary countries, but there was no way I could finish it in time for the show. Then the Wedding5000 happened, and a bunch of other stuff, and eventually the Forgotten Lands were, well, forgotten.

I’ve been reading Dictionary of the Khazars again, and between that and Cartophiliac’s reminiscences about his own imaginary countries, my old project has been on my mind. I dug it out this morning, and was surprised to see how far I’d got. Out of the sixteen countries originally planned, I had written up eleven that are fairly decent, finished a twelfth that stinks, and jotted down the basic ideas for two more.

I don’t know if these country descriptions – they are part parody of reference-book prose, part commentary on world events, part pure geographical fantasy – will be of any interest to anyone but myself, but I thought I would type them up from the notebook where they’ve been hiding, mock up the flags, and share them here over the next couple of months. I’ll even complete the unfinished ones, just for fun.

Here goes.

Kingdom of Dheshet
Capital:
Amaninantu
Population: 650,000 (1995 estimate)

Economy: Poorly developed formal economy. Exports include barley, timber, gypsum, potatoes. Narcotics trafficking is probably the greatest source of foreign currency.


Nestled in the remotest reaches of the Himalayas, Dheshet is one of the few bona fide monarchies persisting in the modern world. Although an elected parliament selects a prime minister who is the titular chief executive, de facto authority rests entirely with King Magnu Peshaman, who ascended to the throne in 1978.

The origins of the Kingdom of Dheshet are shrouded in obscurity. Local legend holds that the Pesh people were charged with the task of maintaining the “Pillars of the Earth” (i.e. the Himalayas). Were their kingdom to fall, the legend has it, the pillars would crumble and the sky would fall, destroying humanity. The spectacularly isolated valleys of Dheshet became known to the West only in 1847, when they were chanced upon by the Himalayan expedition of Sir Willard Winscott. Symbolic of the country’s continued isolation is its status as one of the few countries to decline membership in the United Nations.

The Pesh, who constitute 85% of Dheshet’s population (12% Nepalese, 3% other), are among the most physically distinctive of all peoples. Having adapted over centuries to the thin air of their high-altitude homeland, they are, despite their diminutive stature, exceptionally deep-chested. The lung capacity of the average Pesh has been measured at 47% greater than that of the average American.

The language of the Pesh is called “Peshian” by outsiders, but is known to its speakers simply as ka nattu – “the language.” It is related to no other known dialect.


Flag: A small field of orange within a larger field of green, itself set within a red banner. Adopted by royal proclamation in 1967, the flag seems to represent nothing in particular. It is however typical of the enthusiasm shown by the Pesh for vibrant, often jarring colors. Visitors speak of the first visit to a Dheshet town as “a literally dizzying assault on the senses, with brilliant color shining out seemingly from every stone” (Penderton, North From India).






Al Farif
Capital: Mouj
Population: 4,688,000 (2001 estimate)

Economy: Mediterranean agricultural products, especially citrus and dates, dominate Al Farif’s small export sector. The bulk of the population practices subsistence agriculture or animal husbandry.


Almost the entire population of Al Farif lives in the thin strip of fertile land between the Kiaradj Highlands and the Mediterranean Sea. The hot winds off the Mediterranean, such a constant of life in the region, cool as they rise over the Kiradj and expel their moisture in daily thunderstorms that are as regular as they are violent. “Fortune is reckless as the wind,” goes a local proverb, and the profound fatalism implicit in this saying is lost on no one who has witnessed an afternoon storm in the Kiradj foothills. Most of Al Farif’s population lives clustered along the many rivers that flow north from the highlands to the sea. The vast areas of desert land to the south are wandered only by a handful of nomadic herders, with their goats and camels.

Despite having no history of political unity, Al Farif remained independent during the colonial period out of sheer geopolitical happenstance. The British did not wish to see the region added to France’s Algerian possessions, and the French in turn did not relish the prospect of yet another British base in the Mediterranean. Neither country felt that the ire of its neighbor was a price worth paying for Al Farif. After only a brief occupation by Mussolini’s Italy (1936-1942), the country was led onto the modern stage by President Sheikh Abdul Mohamed. At 96, he remained in 2002 the world’s longest serving head of state.


Flag: The pattern of three vertical bars probably reflect the Italian influence on postwar Al Farif (despite the brief occupation, Italy’s impact here was considerable; Italian can in fact be heard spoken to this day in certain coffeehouses in Mouj). The green of the left and right bars represents Islam. The blue of the center bar is variously said to represent the Mediterranean Sea, the rivers on which Al Farif depends, or the bright Saharan sky.






OK, that's the concept anyway....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXIX

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always the underlying precepts that allow the persistence of a humane, prosperous democratic society within a multicultural federal system:

No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will find themselves on the cutting room floor.
This Week's Category will hit you like a forcefully struck hockey puck!

Oh! Canada!

Some of the following statements are accurate. Some just aren't.
1. Calgary is the largest city in Alberta.
2. Charlottetown is the largest city in Prince Edward Island.
3. Dartmouth is the largest city in Nova Scotia.
4. Halifax is the largest city in New Brunswick.
5. Iqaluit is the largest city in Nunavut.
6. Ottawa is the largest city in Ontario.
7. Quebec is the largest city in Quebec.
8. Saint John's is the largest city in Newfoundland.
9. Saskatoon is the largest city in Saskatchewan.
10. Victoria is the largest city in British Columbia.
11. Winnipeg is the largest city in Manitoba.
12. Yellowknife is the largest city in the Yukon.

Submit your answers in the comments, eh?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Great Movies: "Double Indemnity"

At the Movies with Michael5000


Double Indemnity
Billy Wilder, 1944.

There is a lot of film noir on The Great Movies list, and it wasn't too long ago that I checked in on the brilliant The Big Sleep. That movie -- have you seen it? you must! -- was all style and sexuality, with a plot so labyrinthine that it essentially disappeared into the background.

Double Indemnity, another gritty noir, is in some ways the exact opposite of The Big Sleep. This movie is all plot, and most of the pleasure in it is watching the situation evolve, acquire complexities, and spin itself out to an inevitable conclusion. The characters claim to be motivated by their sexual attraction, but the claim isn't very convincing; by the end of the film, the murder that is the central event seems to have been motivated as much by ennui as by lust or greed. As in The Big Sleep, there is a dose of sexy banter between the leads, but it comes off here as more practiced, less witty.

The grittiness in 'Sleep comes from a sleazy, violent underworld milieu into which the fundamentally decent characters are forced to venture. The sleaze and violence in Double Indemnity, by contrast, are inflicted on a peaceful, ordered society by the two protagonists, who are outwardly civil and likable but actually corrupt and malign.

Different direction and different performance could have made, I think, a far different film out of the same script. If the characters made us believe that they believed they were in love, if the murder victim was made to seem malign as opposed to merely crotchety, we would have had a more conventional movie. But, in that it would have been essentially condoning vigilante murder, we also would have had a morally bankrupt movie.

Plot: Insurance man meets woman trapped in stale marriage. They cook a plot to see if they can do away with the husband, score a big claim from the insurance company, and live happily ever after. Complications ensue.

Visuals: Double Indemnity is thought to be one of the films that established the visual vocabulary of film noir, but it did not jump out at me as especially visually distinctive. (Maybe my eyes are still calibrated to the beautiful Days of Heaven.) I did enjoy the interiors of the insurance company offices, which prefigure Wilder's brilliant satirical take on the business environment in The Apartment.

Dialogue: A movie about insurance fraud necessarily relies on a lot of expository dialogue, to set up the caper and to let you know how things are progressing. The writing and performance is good enough in Double Indemnity that you never notice that you are essentially being read long chunks of the story line.

Prognosis: Not bad. Double Indemnity feels a little more like an "old movie" than does The Big Sleep, but it is a well-made and absorbing entertainment. A must for noir fans, but recommended for anyone else out of their teens.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Tuesday Miscellany

Meme Duty

Shortly after I had posted the current meme-about-town ("seven weird or random things about yourself") over on the quilt blog, I got hit with it again from L&TM5K vice-dork fingerstothebone. Unwilling to accept the quilt blog weird or random things about myself, fingers further stipulated that I needed to come up with seven fresh, never-before-revealed items, which was tricky. I am running out of even remotely interesting nuggets of self-revelation. But my motto is, Anything For the Readers. So here goes:

1. I didn't learn to drive until I was 22. A lushly bearded college graduate, I was a decided anomaly in my driver's ed class.

2. Similarly, I was in graduate school when I smoked my first cigarette.

3. The following things make me inexplicably but acutely uncomfortable: people dressed as Santa Claus, eating meals in someone else's home, collars that are a different color than the shirt, girly hearts-and-lace crap, and belly dancing.

4. I am fascinated by air safety protocols and air crash investigation. I've studied this in some depth. For most airline crashes you could name, I can tell you what went wrong and why, and what has been done to keep it from happening again. This odd interest has actually helped, rather than exacerbated, my fear of flying.

5. I know how to play one of these:


6. I worked for a while as a clerk in the bras department of a department store chain. It was just paperwork, but still very educational.

7. Putting myself through college by working the graveyard shift at a convenience store, I began a turbulant life-long relationship with diet cola. At present, I generally consume two 44-ounce portions of this beverage a day.
Did I say remotely interesting? Maybe I overstated my case....


The Reading List

Well, how do you follow up Lolita? Well, I made a list of eight possibilities off of the list last week, then flipped three pennies to randomly pick one of them. And here it is:

If I remember right, Boo's class -- 7th grade? 8th grade? -- is reading Huckleberry Finn right now too. I'm just hoping my book report won't be the worst in the class. Boo says the book is "hilarious." Hope so!


Song of the Day

...is the Mountain Goats' "Dance Music." Your choice of versions!

The studio track, whimsically animated by some nut with sock puppets....



Or this live track.


Thanks, YouTube!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Monday Quiz XIX

Modern Art


Yes, again.


1. The following three images are typical samples of what living artist's work?










2. This work is typical of what early 20th Century painter?






3. These two images are typical of what mid- and late-20th Century painter?






4. These three photographs are typical of the work of what living artist?







5. These three images are typical of the work of what mid-20th Century artist?





Extra Credit: What can you tell me about this?

Submit your answers in the comment.


Note: Since we live and breathe at least two of these artists here at Castle5000, and since the piece in the Extra Credit question looms rather large in my personal life, Mrs.5000 has been disqualified from today's Quiz. She's taking it pretty well.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Reading List: Lolita


That Book by Nabakov,
or,

Reading Lolita in Portland.


Let's start with the easy part: Lolita is a delightful wonderland of languange, every sentence a playfully intricate jewel. Having finished the book yesterday, I am sure that I could begin reading it again right now and find at least three clever allusions, double entendres, paradoxes, and simple dead-on descriptions to die for that I didn't notice the first time, on every page. And then I could do that a few more times.

It is also a scream. Often, densely crafted text means slow going, but Lolita is a brisk and easy read. Much is lampooned, starting with the mores and landscapes of middle America but also the High European intellectual culture represented, sort of, by Humbert Humbert, the morally bankrupt and self-deceiving protagonist. There is however also a great affection in the novel for those things being lampooned, and the lyrical, impressionistic tours of the Midwest and West are equisite portraits of an America of a certain age. Modern travellers will see much in Nabakov's America that has changed and much that is the same, but also much that has changed in form but remains the same in spirit, or much that is the same in form but has become vestigial in function.

There is no doubt, then, that Lolita is sublime. The question, for me, is: is it also ridiculous? It is, after all, an essentially jolly, upbeat novel about serial child-rape, and as such needs to offer a little more in the way of self-justification than the average bodice ripper. In an afterward that echoes some of the intellectual condescension of his staggeringly unreliable narrator -- intentionally? unintentionally? -- Nabakov lets out a worldly sigh against the unimaginitive louts who will:
think up such problems as 'What is the author's purpose?" or still worse 'What is the guy trying to say?'
Lout that I am, I found these questions very much on my mind, as they are fairly key to moving a novel out of the category of "diversion," as in something that Carl Hiassan might write, or a book of sudoku puzzles.

The best intellectual achievement of Lolita, in my judgement after this first reading, is in its treatment of the first person narrative. Humbert Humbert is a disarming guide to his own tale, and although virtually every move he makes varies from the profoundly neurotic to the eeriely pathological, he speaks in terms of such universal themes -- fear of loss, jealousy, the disappointment of failing to please another -- that we are lulled along, always on the verge of accepting bizarre situations as normal, always torn towards thinking that maybe he's not really so bad, really. When Humbert chronically trips up with throwaway remarks that, as if by accident, reveal the depth of his brutal and cynical abuse of Lolita, Nabakov is showing us how far he has been able to take us with the seductive power of the first person. Everyone's story sounds pretty reasonable in their own telling of it, but that doesn't mean that everyone has a reasonable story.

So, Lolita is not empty calories. There is plenty here to challenge and provoke, and -- to be gravely blunt about the purpose of The Reading List project -- for myself, I feel a little smarter and a little more cultured than I did when I opened the front cover. Still, this is ultimately a book where the style is master of the substance, an in a lovely, lovely way. Lolita is lyrical candy for the very literate. If you've read this review, but have never read Lolita, you really ought to. It's awesome.

Summary: Readers who, like me, know about Lolita mostly from the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" will be surprised to learn that European-born Humbert Humbert is not, in fact, "old." He is 39, which is of course an age of great youth and vigor. (Nor does he "shake and cough" to any noteworthy extent.) He does, however, stand far too close to little girls, particularly young Dolores Haze, 13, whom he calls "Lolita." Through various misadventures he becomes her quasi-legal guardian, and the bulk of the book describes his adventures and hijinks as he tries to preserve their secret, deal with the mysteries of American youth culture, keep her away from boys, and bring her up to share his own cynical and rarified set of ideas and attitudes about the world, all while raping her multiple times every day. It is, to be sure, a book that challenges while it delights.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Thursday Quiz XXVIII

The Thursday Quiz!

The Thursday Quiz is an "Is It or Isn't It" game. From the list of twelve items, your job is to determine whether each IS or ISN'T a true example of the week's category.

Remember always that in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, whatever that means:
No research, Googling, Wikiing, or use of reference books. The Thursday
Quiz is a POP quiz. Violators will find themselves on the cutting room floor.
This Week's Category tells you something, it thinks you'll understand. To wit, it wants to hold your hand!

#1 Beatles Singles

Many of their songs are extremely well known, but not all of them were hit singles back in the day. Some of the following made it to #1 on the American charts, but others either weren't singles at all, or never made it to the top 40. Which were the hits?

1. "Get Back"
2. "Here Comes the Sun"
3. "I am the Walrus"
4. "I Feel Fine"
5. "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
6. "The Long and Winding Road"
7. "The Love is the Love"
8. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"
9. "Octopus’s Garden"
10. "Paperback Writer"
11. "Penny Lane"
12. "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away"

Scream your answers hysterically in the comments.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Am Ridiculous: a vignette



Ten Years Ago in the Life and Times of Michael5000


OK, this is a story that might have the power to offend. I offer it here, though, as yet another exhibit for the prosecution on the absurdity of life, or perhaps just the absurdity of me.

Two things you should know: First, I spent the first 25 years of my life in small towns and small cities in Oregon and Kansas, and though I was raised to understand that racism is among the most vile of human sins, I also had had very little actual exposure to African-Americans. Second, I am a shy person and, when I'm going to have to initiate a conversation with a stranger, I tend to rehearse what I'm going to say in my head a few times. A part of me must think that this will prevent me from saying anything foolish, or stumbling over my words. In practice, it probably makes me come off as strange and artificial, but it's just how I seem to operate.

So. It's 1998, and I'm refinishing the floors of my house in small-town Kansas, and I need to seal the joint between the fireplace and the floor surface. In doing this, I'll need to match the grout in the fireplace tile, which is very dark. I head down the street to the general hardware store, but they don't have what I need; they point me a mile down the highway to a more specialized paint store, and off I go.

I find the shop, which is empty except for an unseen clerk who shouts a greeting from a few aisles away. I say hello, but I have already seen the sealant section, so I go over and start looking through the selection. It's a problem. They've got lots of white and off-white varieties, of course, and some light browns, and even a curious red, but nothing that matches my grout. You homeowning readers will understand my quandry.

I decide to ask the clerk that I heard earlier if there's anything in back, or anything I'm missing. Being me, about to talk to a stranger, I compose what I'm going to say to him in my head.

I turn the corner, and there he is, a pleasant, professional-looking African American man about my age. "What can I help you with?" he asks. I stammer something about being fine, pretend to browse for a moment, then leave the shop, totally defeated. He must have thought I was some kind of idiot, and really, that would have been right. But I'm a shy person, and in that moment of talking to a stranger, there was no way I was going to say the phrase that I had rehearsed in my head, that was right there on the tip of my tongue, ready to go:

"Hi. I'm looking for some black caulk. Can you help me with that?"

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Great Movies: "Days of Heaven"

At the Movies with Michael5000



Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick, 1978.

OK, it's a costume drama about a love triangle set on the American frontier in the 1910s, narrated by a child, and I know! I know! I am falling asleep just writing the sentence! Honestly, I put off watching Days of Heaven for a full month, stopped in my tracks by a cover that showed men and women in period dress looking soulfully at each other against a sweeping backdrop of prairie and sky.

But despite that this movie has the plot of a Western melodrama -- despite, really, that this movie IS a Western melodrama -- it is also a film that radically transcends its genre. The plot of Days of Heaven is only a hook on which to hang a rich and beautifully drawn portrait of a way of life. What this movie really wants to do, and does, is to take those sepiatone portraits of great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers on the prairies, those hulks of agricultural machinery washed up with no context in the county museums, and to render them meaningful, to show what they meant in the context of actual human lives. For the social history buff, Days of Heaven offers the best realization I've seen on film of life in the early 20th Century west.

For the movie buff, Days of Heaven offers lots of pretty images. It is a true "moving picture." The cinematography is boss, with great, sweeping landscape shots. You need music inspired by Aaron Copland to pull this kind of thing off, and Ennio Morricone delivers with a restrained but effective score. The plot is a detail dealt with in gestures and key moments, and we are spared the long scenes of wooing, weeping, and loving looks that most movies of this type would wallow in. The result is surprisingly spare, smart, and original.

Plot: A brother-and-sister team of agricultural laborers who aren't really brother and sister decide to swindle a dying farmer, except that she falls in love with him, and oh dear, everything's a mess. A lesser movie would contrive a happy ending.

Visuals: Beautiful. This is the only film I've ever seen that captures what people who love the subtle beauty of the Great Plains really see in that landscape. You wouldn't necessarily want to just sit there watching it with the sound off, but if you had to you would still get something out of the experience. It must be spectacular on the big screen.

Dialogue: Real working class Americans speaking plausibly, and yet with a certain rustic poetry to their words. There is a lot of voice-over narration from the little sister of a main character, an unwashed urchin of about eight, and her prematurely world-weary, unschooled voice is pitch-perfect and surprisingly moving. (The urchin could alternatively be seen as the main character in her own right, but we'll save that discussion for another day).

Prognosis: Recommended to anyone who read this far, for days when they are in the mood for a more reflective, less action-packed, entertainment.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Monday Quiz XVIII


The Movies of the Coen Brothers

The Monday Quiz salutes the Academy Award winners.

Name the movie advertised by each of these posters. Images have been altered somewhat, for obvious reasons.

1.



2.



3.



4.



5.



Answers go in the comments.