Thursday, July 19, 2007

Glamorous Dames and the Men Who Loved Them

This very week, in a dark bar, I said to the company there assembled, "You know why no one writes about romantic comedies? Because they are dumb." Enter, David Denby.

His long, uneven history of the romantic comedy, in "A Critic At Large, A Fine Romance, The new comedy of the sexes" wasn't so much dumb, as a little dull. I skimmed it. He gives a nice description of the appeal of the good old days when,

"The best directors of romantic comedy in the nineteen-thirties and forties—Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks, Mitchell Leisen, and Preston Sturges—knew that the story would be not only funnier but much more romantic if the fight was waged between equals."

Sigh. God knows, I'd like nothing better than to see the end of Placey Placeholder and the (his term) "male pack" film. My less than enthusiastic feelings towards Apatow, Last Kiss, Wedding Crashers, etc are sprinkled all over the internet. But I wasn't quite satisfied with Denby's sort of selective time-line that linked Shakespeare, screwball, Woody Allen and today's seriously unfunny romantic comedies.

And then there's the larger question of men who love women. Think again: the divas, even (especially?) the comic divas, of classical Hollywood were loved and created (and lovingly created) by a queer sensibility. At the same time, certain of the classic Hollywood films have been understood to be structured by a little-discussed and maybe inappropriately named gay-male misogyny, a kind of counter-part to, you know, rampant homosociality. And what Denby's describing in today's pictures, he falls just short of calling misogyny, however heterosexist and/or homosocial it may be. Where is this history in Denby's analysis? Or, rather, what does 20th century history of sexuality and gender have to say to the "male pack" film and its tiresome women?

But what do I care? Romantic comedies are dumb and I don't watch them. Except for Shortbus, which I just saw and I loved but I do not think it falls outside of the paradigms discussed above. Poor, cliched, Sophia.

FYI, Glamorous Dames and the Men Who Loved Them is a recurring theme in this week's New Yorker.

Denby on Hairspray:

"The finest moment is something very simple and straightforward: Christopher Walken, playing Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, coarsens his voice and gentles his manner and woos Edna with the lovely Old Broadway-style song “You’re Timeless to Me.” The number begins in the Turnblad living room, works its way down the back stairs, and concludes in the yard, amid hanging laundry. In the end, Shankman may feel a greater kinship with the old folks than with the pulsing kids."

Franklin on the FX show Damages:

"Glenn Close is an actress whom people respect but don’t give their love to, the way they do to, say, the living national treasure Meryl Streep, who is roughly Close’s age peer and one of the few other American actresses who have some degree of majesty. (Anjelica Huston is another, but the list is short. All three, interestingly or not, have notably irregular, majestic noses. You aspiring actresses, cancel that consultation with the plastic surgeon.)"

Paumgarten on Mort Zuckerman's love life:
"He has dated, among others, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Diane von Furstenberg, Blair Brown, and Marisa Berenson."

And, as if that isn't enough, "Barbara Walters describes him as one of the best dinner-party companions she has ever known." I'll bet he can ballroom dance too.

And Emdashes, long-time His Girl Friday fan, takes it from an anti-nostalgia angle. Interesting choice, Em. Also, her range of references (to film, and to internet dating) flesh out some of the historical contexts I only gesture towards.

gawande in rare form

"Comment," the top slot in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town," is almost always a good read and Atul Gawande proves himself master of the short and pithy, in "Sick and Twisted." I'd only read his longer things before, but his comment is a call for health care reform, and a warning about the difficulties of this in the US. He organizes the essay around Michael Moore's film, and the possibilities of outrage.

But I think my favorite line was not exactly about health care at all.

"We have never corrected failure in something so deeply embedded in people’s lives and in the economy without the pressure of an outright crisis. The welfare reforms of 1996 made changes that profoundly affected people’s lives, but only those of the poor, which was why voters supported the experiment."

Note, Gawande only gets top billing in the print edition of TNY. The online version of this week's "Talk of the Town" leads with the waitress in the bikini.

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that was Pauline Kael, on Steel Magnolias

The thing about the chalk and the blackboard. From 1989. Or, really, I'm not sure the capsule appeared until 1990. I remembered it all these years, and looked it up for accuracy in my CTNY.

Simon Rich, funny enough to make me smile, in The New Yorker. And, New Yorker related, but NOT funny enough to make me smile, at McSweeney's. Funnier than the "Shouts and Murmurs" - the comments on this Matthew Yglesias post about Simon Rich's homeroom antics.

Oh, wait, nevermind. It's kinda funny for someone who I imagined was much older. Graduated college in '07 ??!! Young people should be funnier than this and their frame of reference should be slightly different.


Thursday, July 12, 2007


"Chalk scraping across a blackboard for two hours." Name that film. Or that reviewer.

Somewhere, in the exciting discussion of TNY design that I engaged in at Emdashes (that somewhere along the line became a discussion of movie reviews and capsules), Emily wondered if TNY had ever given stars for actual theater or film recommendations. Interesting question.

Me, I don't see the stars idea working, at least for the films. The film capsules (more or less) seem, to me, to work through reference and analogy (maybe a legacy of Kael, maybe not) - a film is like this or that movement or style or director or sensory experience. If that's your thing, you go, if not, then not. Or maybe they just work that way for me, since I'm skeptical about their evaluations to begin with.

No, honestly. I think they don't and won't (for awhile) have stars - not even one - because you're supposed to know. The listings are supposed to be informative (with a bit of evaluation built into what's listed and what's not) and you're supposed to have the frame of reference (perhaps to recent issues of TNY) to know what you'd like. It's part of the snob appeal. Like a cookbook.

That said, the film capsule (above, and that's the whole capsule) that has inspired me low these many years is quite evaluative. As in, "I give it 3 sticks of chalk scraping across a blackboard!"

And I do think Goings On About Town appeals, maybe even primarily, to out-of-towners. I've always been one and I've always read Goings On and only recently has it occurred to me that I could use it as an actual (and not virtual) guide.


Gilding the Lily, Painting the Peacock

Little changes that would, she says, improve the design of the print version of TNY, while preserving much of its old-fashioned charm. In a two part article posted at the website of the AIGA ("the professional association for design"). The second part is more substantial, and pleasurable, than the first. By KT Meaney.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Emdashes covers it, and I'm always ready with an opinion.

April 3, 1926. Rea Irvin.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

worth the time and effort: Shapin, Auletta, Anderson

If you still have your innovations issue of The New Yorker about, you might read Steven Shapin on use and invention. He starts with the old phenomenologist's trick of describing the room he's writing in and it only gets better from there. And is the cartoon that illustrates the article supposed to be a representation of Shapin himself? Adorable. May 14 seems like just yesterday but I don't remember hearing too many rave reviews of this. Am I the only one?

I also read Auletta on the Wall Street Journal. It took 3 sittings! But I learned a lot. From July 2.

And I started Jon Lee Anderson's Letter from Afghanistan, which had a long, rather gratuitous action sequence. At least, I think the play-by-play of gunfire, etc was gratuitous, I haven't actually finished the article yet. Maybe it becomes relevant. In the July 9 issue. Less sure if this last one is worth the time or effort, but I'm intrigued by the familiarity its politics and imagery thus far . . .

UPDATE: New Yorker Comment is swept up in the action, too.

UPDATE 2: Comments turn towards fiction (gasp!), "If I Vanished" by Stuart Dybek, and a film called Open Range.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Case of the Curious Hedge Fund, and Other Tales

So I read about Trillin's insular Canadians before I read about Tina+Diana. I might read the whole book someday.

The Taguba article was awful news, to be sure, but I had a hard time following it and I'm not sure whether Hersh needed more editing, or less.

And Alex Ross was a pleasure to read, though I wished he'd taken it a little more slowly too. Kind of a breathless pace for an orchestral road trip, rather than a contemplative one.

I have to say, I kind of liked Acocella's historical turn in her reviews of recent Romeo+Juliet and Swan Lake productions.

All in the June 25 New Yorker.

But the real surprise in my recent reading was John Cassidy and The Case of the Curious Hedge Fund. From, I think, the July 2 issue. Fascinating. The thing I loved most was that while I was reading I gained a pretty clear understanding of how the hedge fund simulator worked, though what a hedge fund was or how it worked remained shrouded in darkness. As it should be.

The story begins with a Dutch economist, blindfolded and thrown in the back of a speeding limo:

"Kat, a forty-three-year-old Dutch economist, had recently left a high-paying job at the London office of Bank of America to pursue a career in academe. He didn’t know much about hedge funds, but he agreed to be interviewed by an executive at the firm. Hedge funds are privately owned financial companies that raise cash from very wealthy individuals and institutional investors, such as pension funds and charitable endowments. Unlike banks and brokerage firms, hedge funds are largely unregulated, which gives them considerable latitude in investing their clients’ money."

He's heard the rumors, seen the heavies on the street:

"Hedge funds go to great lengths to maintain their mystique: Simons and other managers rarely grant interviews, and the mostly young analysts and traders who make up the funds’ staffs sign confidentiality agreements barring them from discussing their work. The public, denied information about the industry’s methods, has focussed instead on the conspicuous spending it has enabled, seeing in the life styles of the funds’ managers proof of their ingenuity. Steven Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital Advisors, lives in a thirty-two-thousand-square-foot house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and last year reportedly paid $143.5 million for a painting by Willem de Kooning."

He barely makes his escape, to plot revenge (with his trusty technologically savvy side-kick) from the groves of academe:

"Kat, realizing that it would be nearly impossible to determine the trading strategies of individual hedge funds—the companies would never agree to divulge them—decided to study their results instead. Hedge funds aren’t required to file quarterly reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, so it isn’t easy to get accurate information about their earnings. However, several financial-publishing companies now collate data on monthly returns which hedge funds supply to them voluntarily, presumably in order to impress potential investors. The databases that these publishers have assembled are neither complete nor entirely reliable, but they include information on thousands of funds, some of it dating back to the nineteen-eighties."

The rest you have to read for yourself. I wouldn't want to spoil the suspense.


Goofus and Gallant See a Documentary

Thank you, S.T. VanAirsdale!

The Reeler on David Denby, "I read David Denby so you don't have to, but this week's Sicko review is a special kind of horseshit that deserves your time if not your consideration. "Few people in Moore’s audience are likely to be displeased that (subjects) receive help from a Communist system," he writes in perhaps his most simple-minded pan ever; I gave up not long afterward, choosing not to follow Denby in his scenic round around Moore's point, modus operandi, sense of humor, etc. When did The New Yorker start cross-publishing film criticism from Highlights for Children?"

If there's anything that annoys me more than reading Denby, it's watching Moore. I only skimmed Denby on Moore and I won't likely see Sicko (unless I go with a large group of first-year internal medicine interns - I love seeing movies with audiences with an angle) but at this point, grudging defenses of Moore are more interesting than pans, I guess. Or maybe not. Me, I'm so tired of exhibitionist documentary that I'm not even going to define that term I just made up.

Oh, and I just finished watching When the Levees Broke, which is not an exhibitionist doc but felt like a traditional made-for-TV kind of doc. The voices of the locals and experts all came across good and strong and I really liked the play of what residents saw and experienced and knew with what university and professional-type researchers had to say. Just what I'd want from environmentalist media in general.

Reeler post also has something to say about why Indy, why Connecticut. Tax breaks, of course!