Monday, 22 June 2009

On the many different ways of being nice

Sympathy is Crowe's great gift, but it's a kind of weakness as well. He has rightly been criticised for the lack of darkness in his films, and there's clearly no question of them holding up a mirror to all of life. Yet with Lloyd, at least, there's an element of mystery: we have no idea of his relationship with his (absent) parents; his aimlessness hints at trouble ahead. And there's something between confusion and anger that underlies his riffs in conversation, which Crowe and Cusack are wise enough to merely suggest—it's never discussed. It would also seem to undergird his awe of Diane, who is more at peace with herself. When the couple split Lloyd is all at sea, swinging between shattered grief and self-conscious poses of defiance. Whereas Diane, while miserable, still has her prospects and her father ... or so she thinks.
This from my 2002 review of Say Anything ..., which I have rescued from its web oblivion and posted at Bruce's Reviews for the 19th anniversary of the film's release.

“He may be the least cynical director working in Hollywood today,” wrote A.O. Scott in his review of the 2000 film Almost Famous. “What other filmmaker is as devoted to the nuances of decency or as fascinated by the subtle and complicated ways people can be nice to one another?” In a brilliant piece of sympathetic criticism, he put his finger on the limitations of Almost Famous while at the same time being fully, gratefully alive to that film's wonderful strengths.

Scott's concerns were prescient, as Crowe seems to have badly lost his way as a director since then. In revisiting Say Anything ..., surely the best teen romance of its age, I'd like to express the hope that Crowe can find a new way forward.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Engaging with difficulty

A.O. Scott has been making a plea for maturity and engagement, in the form of a moral protest against a recent film:
Really, “Away We Go” is about the flight from adulthood, from engagement, from responsibility, even as it cleverly disguises itself as a search for all those things. But the dream of being left alone in a world of your own making, far from anything sad or icky or difficult, is a child’s fantasy.
Stirring stuff. Likewise concerning topics on which it is difficult to talk sensibly, or well, consider the following:

an insightful and sane essay on the Wikipedia revolution;

a meditation on work and thought in the trades, versus the office;

and a report on the frontline of a change of medical practice in the States.

Concerning health care, one of the avowed goals of the Obama presidency, it is good to see that there has been at least some attempt to learn from past mistakes:
It has been 16 years, in fact, since another young, freshly inaugurated Democratic president with a Democratic Congress tried to remake the architecture of health care, and the catastrophe that followed is generally cited as the main deterrent to thinking big about anything in the capital. The plan Bill Clinton took to Congress then, running to more than 1,000 pages of impenetrable new regulations, wasn’t what you’d call politically savvy, but the strategy used to sell it was even worse. Having been elected as the latest in a series of outsider presidents after Watergate, ex-Governor Clinton seemed to believe he had been sent by the voters to purify the fetid culture of Washington; he installed a boyhood friend as his chief of staff and stocked his White House with loyal Arkansans and campaign aides ready to overrun a fossilized Congress. His wife, the current secretary of state, developed the health care plan largely without taking House and Senate leaders into her confidence, instead dropping it at the doorstep of the Capitol as a fait accompli. Ever jealous of its prerogative, Congress took a long look, yawned and kicked the whole plan to the gutter, where it soon washed away for good — along with much of Clinton’s ambition for his presidency.

The first senator elected directly to the Oval Office since 1960, Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. After winning the office with the same kind of outsider appeal as his predecessors, he has quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history ... Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
How people continue to regard Obama as a pushover and a mere talker escapes me.

I have also been enjoying, together with the occasional cringe-moment, the president's Cairo address. A well-taken Middle Eastern appreciation, along the lines of “Yes, but ...”, can be found here. David Brooks also has some characteristically tendentious but insightful comments on the tensions in Obama's approach.

Several bloggers, fellow fans of the Archbishop of Canterbury, have been reminding me of his Cairo speech five years ago, on the different but related topic of respectful dialogue between Christians and Muslims on the nature of God: on what is agreed, as well as on the disagreements, and on being careful to distinguish the two.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Second thoughts

Work trips put one behind on reading, and on blogging. Here are some things I've been looking at in the last six weeks or so, concerning, in some way, re-thinking a received position.

From the New York Times:
Mary Beard, on Roman book trade and culture
Looking back on decisions about prisoner interrogation
When “bad advice” is the best advice
On the off-brand presidency
On a recognition Israel doesn't need
On the decline of Christian communities in the Middle East

Web comics:
xkcd on changing the rules
PhD Comics on research topics guaranteed to be picked up by the news media

Byron Smith on dying with dignity
Scot McKnight on justification and the New Perspective on Paul: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and ... [one needs to be patient to do anything more than skim these]

Food for thought:
From an NYT op-ed opposed to the drone-war being fought in Pakistan, a comment with resonance for anyone opposed to extremist behaviour, including myself (let the reader understand):
Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do...

And from the LRB, Jenny Diski, in a (subscription-required) article on schooling, reflecting on teaching as a young idealist in the early 70s, in an inner-city comprehensive:
The lack of oversight, and of targets, must send a chill of horror through any modern manager of a school, and with some reason: it was pretty haphazard, and who was to say that only good teaching would or did come of the laissez-faire system? The line between liberty and libertarianism is very indistinct, and the desire to dismantle bureaucracy and social inequity leaves open the possibility of chaos, and creates endless opportunities for individual self-aggrandisement. But it seems to me that the risks were worth taking, now that we've seen the dismal results of our 20-year-long experiments with centralised targets, management echelons and paper-based accountability.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Colour my world

I've called this story a “myth”, not in the vulgar sense that “it didn't really happen”, but in the more technical sense that it's part of the way we think: a story we tell to explain the way the world is, to position ourselves politically and socially, to understand what kinds of action are possible or desirable, and why. The modern myth is a defiantly unfair reading of Genesis 3, which is part of the point of it: it's an alternative vision of the world.

And this is where Pleasantville comes in. The visitors from the 90s bring colour to the world around them, Jennifer by introducing the locals to the life of the body, David (after initial resistance) by opening up the life of the mind ... but they themselves remain stubbornly monochrome. Jennifer is puzzled ...
This from my 2001-02 review of the film Pleasantville, which has been living in an obscure part of the web for years; it's now been uploaded to my new blog of the same name, Bruce's Reviews. More to come over the next little while.