Category Archives: too-close readings

July 10, 2012, 9:28 pm

Margin Call’s tacit tribute to the New Deal.

I loved Jeremy Irons’s performance in Margin Call, and not only because of John Tuld’s final monologue – which is in turn brilliant not only because it contains a tacit arithmetic tribute to the New Deal that undermines the thrust of what he’s saying.

In the list of dates, following 1797, the longest stretch without one of these crises is from 1937 to 1974 – the period of the New Deal’s sway over banking, finance, monetary and fiscal policy.1 Which undermines Tuld’s subsequent suggestion that there’s nothing we can do about it.

1He also misses 1873 and 1893, I think.

June 15, 2012, 4:38 pm

On Scalzi’s Redshirts and historical narrative.


John Scalzi‘s Redshirts is great fun, and honestly, I read it because I expected it to be great fun, and I got what I expected. But it also made me think seriously about how historians handle narrative.

It is no spoiler to say that the book is about the peripheral characters who, in Star Trek, get killed to advance the plot – or really, not even to advance the plot, just to give a sense of great stakes to the story. Kirk, Spock, Chekhov and some random crewperson in a red shirt beam down to the planet. The person in the red shirt – the redshirt – is going to get killed, because they’re expendable and we need to know how deadly the threat is this week. The poor redshirts aren’t people, they’re cannon fodder – not for the Enterprise, mind you, but for the script-writers. Even if their details get filled out a bit, it’s only in the service of giving their deaths greater…

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June 9, 2012, 6:54 pm

Some notes on Prometheus and Jesus and Lawrence of Arabia.


Prometheus wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Star Wars prequels, but my saying that tells you about how good it was. And it tells you what kind of movie it is, too - it is after all a prequel, that exists to explain a lot of the weird stuff in Alien. The thing is, as Patton Oswalt shrewdly notes, just because we like ice cream doesn’t mean we’d like to eat a bag of rock salt. We don’t actually want to see Darth Vader as a little kid; we don’t, really, need to know where the Alien came from and what the space jockeys were unless it’s wrapped in a story bigger than “oh, that’s what that thing was.”

There are, though, some parts of Prometheus that are truly excellent. Michael Fassbender is the main one. His performance as the android David is excellent. Fassbender should have been in a decent adaptation of an Asimovian robot story; he knows how to wrestle …

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April 19, 2012, 10:48 pm

Levon Helm’s voice in The Right Stuff.

RIP Levon Helm, who was not only of course the voice of The Band, but also of The Right Stuff, the voice warning softly,

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

Helm also played Ridley, the trusted friend of Chuck Yeager, as depicted by Sam Shepard. I thought it was a kind of subversive genius, casting those two countercultural Dylan-associated types as these otherwise strait-laced American heroes.

As Pierce says, and as seems appropriate in this particular sidelight on Helm’s career, Godspeed.

April 14, 2012, 10:53 pm

Captain America shares his politics with PM.

Did anyone notice that Steve Rogers’s politics are basically those of PM?

March 9, 2012, 2:38 pm

About the best scene in Casablanca.

Everybody knows Casablanca is a great work of art (and a great work of art generated by a Cornellian, at that). Everybody knows, too, that Casablanca was embedded in a particular historical moment, too – it served to vindicate the recent, necessarily wrenching American volte-face1 on the subject of Europeans and their war.

History also bled through to the screen in the movie’s best scene – the singing of the “Marseillaise”:

Casablanca was shot in 1941 during the German occupation of France, at a point where many questioned whether or not the United States would ever step in to help, [UPDATED: Not true. Though the play was written before US involvement.] when nobody knew how the whole thing was going to turn out.

And the scene included actors who, in real life, had a lot at stake. To shoot Casablanca as a believable port town, producers brought together one of the most…

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January 22, 2012, 3:31 pm

Tinker Tailor Soldier Glazier.

Near the beginning of the new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, just after he gets kicked out of the Circus, George Smiley gets a new pair of glasses.1 In contrast to the horn-rims he’s been wearing, the new frames are squarish bifocals that magnify his eyes.2 They remind us Smiley has, in exile, become a watcher, rather than a player.3 He’s removed from the action, behind glass.

And throughout the movie, so are we. (more…)

November 6, 2011, 5:18 pm

A Completely Biased and Unfair Guide to Whether Or Not To Read a Particular Author in the “Sunday Review” Part of the NY Times Today, with Cursing, Some One-Sentence Summaries, and Occasional Alternate Suggestions of Things To Do That Would Be Less Painful Than Reading Said Article

Front to back: Sanger, sure; Carr; eh, okay; Letters, no; Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me, yes; Bruni, no, any of his restaurant reviews; Murphy, meh; McFadden, Tom Tomorrow is better; Seidel, no, “Fake semi-hipster sociology”; Shourd, yes, but also “Ohmigod, you mean bad things happen in the US, too? Who could have imagined? My stars”; Emanuel, no, “No one understands health care but me”; McGrath, no, having “Lindsay Lohan” tattooed on your forehead; Data Points, no, “Look! The ‘Fall of the Yuan Dynasty’ has critical and important implications for today’s world. Gee, we’re brainy”; Edsall, sure; Galston, no, reading other pieces advocating policies that will never, ever, ever, never get established in the US; Gessen, no, “Wow, those Russians are wacky. And the Chinese, too”; Editorials, Jesus Christ, no; Week Ahead, no, “Russians, Asians, and Ohioans are sure dangerous”; Kristof, sigh,…

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May 17, 2010, 9:09 am

The bullet collided with the victim.

A seven-year-old girl is killed by police in an ill-considered botched no-knock raid.

I’ll admit that it’s a non sequitur, and probably necessary for fair and balanced reporting since one of the foreseeable results of a flashbang grenade is lots of chaos and no one knowing what’s going on, which one would think might be a reason not to use grenades in duplexes, but the passive constructions used to describe the killing of the girl is driving me up the wall.

Apparently people don’t kill people, it’s just the officer’s gun firing.

March 8, 2010, 10:03 am

This post reeks of the odorific virtue!

This is actually an interesting article on newish research into the complexity of obesity, but the word “obesogen” is making me laugh.   Obesogens make you obese!  This sleeping pill is chock full of the dormitive virtue!

We need a tag for lame Scholastic jokes.

February 4, 2010, 9:33 am

The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the ability to destroy the moral sense of a generation.

People keep pushing the 70-minute Phantom Menace video review at me. After all, Damon Lindelof thinks it’s great. And if you have seventy minutes and really don’t mind a creepy persona explaining to you why George Lucas messed up so badly, be my guest. For the record, though, my concern with the Star Wars prequels is not that they’re bad movies, they’re immoral stories. And it will take you less than seventy minutes to read why. And it will probably be less creepy.

January 13, 2010, 6:50 am

Given this economy, perhaps we should get counseling.

From the web edition of Jobs for Philosophers, put out by the American Philosophical Association:

306. SAINT MARY’S COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA, MORAGA, CA. POSTDOCTORAL RESIDENT, COUNSELING CENTER. Saint Mary’s College of California – Moraga, CA. For the 2010-2011 academic year. The Residency requires a 9.5 month, 5 day per week commitment in order to meet California licensing requirements of 1500 hours supervised postdoctoral experience. Qualifications: Psy.D, Ph. D. in Clinical/Counseling Psychology. College/University Counseling Center experience at practicum and/or internship level (desired). Fluency in Spanish (desired). Salary and benefits are competitive and subject to the availability of funding sources. Complete details are available at Preferred deadline is 01/18/10. Open until filled. EOE. (184W), posted 1/11/10

Yes, that…

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December 1, 2009, 9:27 am

Too late to be the first.

Ari tells me I’m the last person to notice this, but what the heck: it’s totally obvious that Disney’s Robin Hood is a fable for the modern American right wing, isn’t it? I mean, the Merry Men, these guys who are traditionally English yeomen, are instead depicted and voiced as country music-lovin’, church-goin’ good ol’ boys who just want them some tax rebates. No, really, Andy Devine’s Friar Tuck actually says “tax rebates.”

Want to push this reading untenably further? Notice that Robin Hood and Little John shrug off the idea of running up enormous debt while cutting back taxes. Notice Little John stoutly defends what’s clearly, within the narrative, a foolhardy military adventure as a “great crusade.”

This has been another edition of too-close readings.

June 10, 2009, 3:45 pm

A closer reading than you want, I’m sure.

So, now that nobody cares anymore, about that Star Trek movie.