Sunday, June 28, 2015

"The Minority Report" (1956)

Philip K. Dick's 1956 short story is easily recognized in Steven Spielberg's 2002 film adaptation of it, which is only more remarkable for the fact that nearly half a century separates them. The technology is very different—they're still using punch cards and audio tape in the Dick story whereas Spielberg convened a consortium of technical experts and/or visionary whatsits to inform the view of  future technology he used in his picture, which includes hacking directly into human brains, as well as all manner of strangely probable urban design. In the story, our hero John Anderton is middle-aged and over the hill; in the movie he's Tom Cruise, capable of extraordinary chin-ups in battle situations. But the basics are there: computer analysis predicts crimes that are then thwarted before they happen. "Precrime" has practically wiped out murder and other violent crime, yet everyone in prison is by definition innocent of actually doing something. There's the rub, and it chafes as much in 2002 as in 1956. Anderton finds himself suddenly charged with a precrime and, convinced it's a put-up job by a career rival, he runs and attempts to get to the bottom of it all. The precogs who see the future in dream states are a trio of genetically mutated humans who are taken as developmentally disabled by most, and treated like animals raised for consumption. In fact, their appalling role in this is largely unexamined in either story or movie. To me their treatment is clearly a greater institutional crime than jailing people for what they weren't able to do, given at least that it seemed to be working for the purpose. But the issue bothering most people around here is the one about imprisoning technical innocents, with its ringing echoes of Enlightenment priorities. It's not that Dick and Spielberg are unaware of the inhumane treatment of the precogs—both depictions are remarkably brutish, though in different ways—it's more that they don't know what to do with it, and genuinely seem more interested in the issues of precrime criminal justice. And they are worthy issues, no doubt, complex and gristly. We need to stop people murdering one another if we can, of course. It's just, for me, if you're enslaving and brutalizing people to get that information in the first place, that's the first issue you'd want to deal with. Thus, both story and movie feel slightly beside the point, for all the interesting highlights they otherwise have to offer.

In case it's not at the library (and in other anthologies).

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, France, 82 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Agnes Varda
Photography: Didier Doussin, Stephane Krausz, Didier Rouget, Pascal Sautelet, Agnes Varda
Music: Joanna Bruzdowicz, Isabelle Olivier
Editors: Laurent Pineau, Agnes Varda

The themes in Agnes Varda's turn-of-the-century documentary are equal parts modern-day and ancient, focused on life and waste. Varda sports a digital camera, learning the ways of the technology, complete with snazzy effects (and a goof or two). The picture is concerned on obvious levels with stewardship of the planet and our fellow beings. And it is also about the olden practice of gleaning, scouring fields after harvests for the leftovers that would otherwise be abandoned and rot. A pedantic legal scholar appears at one point, wearing his finery and waving around a red-bound copy of the local penal code, quoting from it, explaining the legalities of gleaning, which have developed over the centuries in France. It is considered a kind of public charity, and apparently grants open access even to private lands, under specific conditions, for the practice.

It's not the only kind of gleaning in this documentary, but it's what Varda shows us first, with a potato field that has been harvested yet still yields hundreds of pounds—many potatoes rejected because they are too big, or the wrong shape, or just because the machinery missed them. Varda spots a heart-shaped potato and claims it for herself, hunting for more, which she puts in a basket and brings home and displays. Then, as this brief film opens up, we see the more modern styles of gleaning, in urban environments, in public markets before and after hours, at informal drop-off / trading sites, with dumpster diving explained and demonstrated, and beyond that suggestions of estate sales, thrift stores, and collecting. Gleaning is an old and even honorable way to get by, and one I can respond to personally as a lifelong consumer of gently used fare.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


K is my favorite letter, not least because it is worth five points in Scrabble, and 5 is my favorite number. (You'd think with my interest in letters I would play the game more, but I don't have many opportunities, and besides, I've never been much good at it.) Except when it is acting like a perfect doofus sitting out at the front of a word, only to be ignored, as is only appropriate—in "knowledge," for example—K is entirely and always simply what it is: the hard, scratching noise from the back of the throat, and a letter with a lovely, intricate, angled shape in print. I am more sorry than I can say that it has been so villainously abused by the Ku Klux Klan, which has no intrinsic right to it. It pains me deeply. I would sue them for damages if I could. As you know, I bear the letter in my last name, and over the years friends have had one, two, or more in their names, so many that I have finally come to register it as "the sign of the K," which tends to make me even more favorably predisposed to them, perhaps unconsciously. Is K actually a common letter in names, much as J is a common initial? I'm not sure, but I see it a lot. K is also a pitchers' stat in baseball for a strikeout and that's really kewl. In the '60s, filthy hippies with no respect for anything set about systematically abusing it—"Amerika," and all that, which would have grown tiresome except I also associate that with Franz Kafka, who wrote a fragment of a novel called Amerika. Franz Kafka—there's the sign of the K again, double-strength. Ken Kesey. Another one. Check that out. Emily Dickinson. See, the K exerts a quiet and subtle impact as well. I admit that the long-established relation between C and K appears to be here to stay, baffling as it is. It looks better than KK would. But really, have you ever seen such a crock? C, Mr. Third Letter in the Alphabet, the malingerer that doesn't want to choose between K and S, blatantly exploits K for cover on its K case. Back that up, CK, trick it out, and thereby jack up the absurdities. These are the kinds of things someone who really cares about K may find themselves thinking about. I mean, you can't really call K elegant. It comes with elements of the honest working class (as an entirely irrelevant aside, have you ever noticed how "honest" is dishonest about having an H?). Make no mistake. K stands in as its sound with no fuss or ambiguity (except when, as previously mentioned, it sidles up to an N at the beginning of a word, and I guess that's some kind of class issue, best considered another time, under better conditions). OK, I'm not sure what else there is to say.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love (2007)

I like the original subtitle for Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion and Wilson's revulsion for her: "A Journey to the End of Taste," which in many ways is how I felt reading it. The fact that the book started life as an entry in the 33⅓ series of monographs on individual albums (in this case, ostensibly, Dion's Let's Talk About Love, from 1997) only makes a weird and wonderful book even weirder. He dislikes Celine Dion at least as much as I do and most of the people I discuss issues of taste with too. That I now feel warmly toward her as a person after reading Wilson's book is further weirdness. Wilson finds a dozen ways to shame himself and the rest of us for our loathing: the unaffected sincerity of her fans ... Dion's own humble origins ... sources of immigrant culture, pride, and adaptation lurking in music otherwise casually dismissed as "schmaltz" (including a nicely researched capsule of its long tangled history in North American music) ... and a very affecting anecdote about Elliott Smith's encounter with her at the Oscars ceremony in 1998 and Smith's subsequent lifelong defense of Dion as a person. I even found a way in to appreciating Dion more on a personal level, reading Wilson's account of her origins in rural Quebec from a family of 14 children, recalling my North Dakota extended family (with a grand total of 16 siblings in my mother's family, 11 of whom made it to adulthood) and their affection for Lawrence Welk and the Lennon Sisters. Yet nothing makes a dent in the abhorrence for Celine Dion's music, for me or for Wilson either. Wilson's formal position of directly addressing this hatred as a matter of taste is absurd on one level; he knows it and he knows we have to know it too. But as he pushes on with the thought experiment he finally uncovers a whole new way of looking at the issue, new to me anyway, when he gets into sociological studies demonstrating that taste is likely in large part a social construction, a subconscious choice about material satisfaction and perceived gain. A ringing explication of what until now I have only muttered to myself and others incoherently about as "junior high bullshit"—which it seems more obvious than ever to me now is exactly what worries most matters of taste. Wilson even gets into it explicitly by brand name: "cool." Wilson's book (and its original subtitle), along with Daniel Levitin's look at the neuroscience of music, This Is Your Brain on Music, are leading me to view the good old question, "What have you been listening to lately?" in what feels like all new ways. In a world where all taste is equal, there may be no taste at all, replaced only by interpersonal connection and alliances, which are affirmed by the music (and other connecting points) in a feedback loop, or "virtuous cycle." The more you like your friends the more you like the music you share—and more importantly, the sharing. That's all it is. This is at once terrifying and exhilarating to anyone with a stake in the critical enterprise, which I think is finally the great big kick of Wilson's book. Really, it's one not to be missed.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


The more unusual a letter is the more attention it calls to itself, and thus the less useful it becomes. The letter J has this problem like crazy. But I hesitate to criticize J too severely because it is the first letter of my first name after all. In fact, it is the first letter of many people's names, first and last. It appears at the beginning of names all the time—you probably know several in your own circle of friends and family. Take a moment to think. That just appears to be the milieu that J prefers. Months, for example: June, July, January. There it is again. Or consider Judy Johnson, who fell in love with Jacob Jesperson. Together they had a large family, who in turn married and had families of their own: Jimmy, Joseph, Jamie, Julia, Jasmine the elder and Jasmine the younger (technically, a cousin), Johnny Boy, Jaden "the Jukebox," Jan, Jennifer, Jacob Jr. of course, Jason (a juvenile delinquent, sadly), Jessica, actually two more Jasons plus another Jessica, Jesse (a boy), Jesse (a girl), Josie, Josh, Jacqueline known as "Jackie," Jay, and little Jago. You remember that song you used to sing around the campfire about John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt? It should have been Jones for the last name, and I think you know why. But nonetheless J is a squishy thing, taking on the exhalation of the H at times and otherwise requiring a complicated coordination of vocal sound with a specific positioning of jaw and tongue and a forward-thrusting motion that produces something like a brief vibrating hum. The primary function of J is already covered by the soft G (as in "judge") or as mentioned by the H. It's silent in a word like "marijuana" or perhaps, arguably, poses as a W in such roles (the consonant W, for those inclined to believe W is also a sometimes vowel). Speaking of marijuana, a J at one time was a joint, or marijuana cigarette; perhaps it still is in some places. Pass me the J, man. It's also a predatory bird with a striking, severe, and handsome profile, colored blue. Still and all, I keep coming back to this one detail. Why is J such a popular initial—something about the sound, perhaps? The proximity to vain I? Because it is available as a relatively unused letter? After all, it sits way down in the lowly position of #23 on the ranking of letter frequency, and brother, that is low. Because it is such an important letter in my signature I had to choose at some point, perhaps about age 12, between the very different printed and cursive forms of the capital. At first I went with the loopy balloon cursive, but ultimately I settled on the printed fishhook shape, decorating it with the handsome crossbar over the top which gives it so much panache. It's a relatively unusual letter, except for all those names in the Jesperson clan.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cadillac Jack (1982)

(Requested by reader C.A.)

Larry McMurtry is a writer much beloved in Hollywood circles and for good reason, reminiscent of the careers enjoyed by Elmore Leonard or Willam Goldman. Various of McMurtry's novels have provided the basis for the movies Hud, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment, plus he wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. His biggest achievement, literally, may be Lonesome Dove, which sprawls across 800+ pages and was made into a TV miniseries of 6+ hours. Cadillac Jack may or may not be among his best (I've only read Lonesome Dove besides this) but it has many of his most familiar themes, even if it didn't become a movie, and it's well done. McMurtry has always been basically a writer of Westerns, the genre trappings are familiar, but with the great idea of updating the tone and stories to the 20th century and beyond. Accordingly, Cadillac Jack is set mostly in the Washington, D.C., of Ronald Reagan's first term. The times, contemporaneous with the writing, are reflected partly in the free and easy sexual charge that accompanies much of the action. Jack McGriff has earned the sobriquet of the title by his outsize personality and by the "pearl-colored" Cadillac he drives around in. Formerly a rodeo performer, he is now a savvy antiques dealer with a natural talent for it. He's 33, with two ex-wives and many more former girlfriends (a few of which are made in the span of the novel)—a kind of lost soul, but not really, and in any event amiable and easygoing enough about it. Not a lot of plot to this one, but novels and stories where not a lot happens are high on my list, and plot isn't McMurtry's strong point anyway, which is more on the order of mood. Just so, Cadillac Jack is pretty good about casting its spells. McGriff hangs around D.C., sleeps with some women and lusts after others, takes time for feeling sad about things now and then, and sorts out his life's work piecemeal. In some ways, it's a kind of post-Western crossed with the classic novel of manners; there's some sense McGriff is searching for a wife. Everyone is interesting or intriguing, more or less, and there are various shades of maneuver in pursuing who he will march down the aisle for the third time, if indeed he's going to march anyone. McMurtry was in his mid-40s at the time he wrote this, and that's how McGriff feels too. I thought he was a little bit unbelievable as a 33-year-old (a distractingly fraught age in fiction). It's a novel about a midlife crisis essentially. McGriff is likable and that redeems most of the minor misfires. McMurtry is also a very quiet and poised writer, and it's that quality that makes this novel worth looking into, even as it reminds me again that I really need to get to some more of his stuff.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)

Cléo de 5 à 7, France / Italy, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Agnes Varda
Photography: Paul Bonis, Alain Levent, Jean Rabier
Music: Michel Legrand
Editors: Pascale Laverriere, Janine Verneau
Cast: Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothee Blanck, Michel Legrand, Dominique Davray, Lucienne Marchand, Serge Korber

The premise of Cleo From 5 to 7 is simple yet evocative, detailing the interval (in the late afternoon of the longest day of the year) during which a young French pop star waits to get the results of a biopsy. Though a good deal of somewhat unlikely incident is packed into its 90 minutes the presentation is close to real time. Made during the heights of the French New Wave, it even includes cameos by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, as if to bear the stamp of an imprimatur. It is certainly as playful as anything made by Godard, moving about a privileged Paris in freewheeling fashion. It may be as programmatic and multileveled as well, with its arch chaptering and indulgences of fashion and music and visuals.

Yet we see these things from a decidedly alternate point of view, through the eyes of someone who wonders if it won't be the last time. Director and writer Agnes Varda brings an unusual perspective for this vein of cinema—a woman's—focusing on the familiar figure of a fictional pop star, Cleo Victoire (Corinne Marchand in her biggest role), who by manner and appearance is straight out of Godard or Antonioni, easily perceived and pigeonholed as beautiful, shallow, vacant, over-privileged, fragile. It was one ideal of the feminine at this point in film, not just in the French and Italian concoctions, but in America too with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Natalie Wood. Indeed, the world had been seized at this time by "Pop" (capitalized), which people are still at work unpacking 50 years on. On one level, Agnes Varda's version is just another installment, but one of the best.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


It's not hard to see that the letter I is the single most egotistical of all 26 of them, particularly given the great vowel shift in the English language in the Middle Ages. And this despite its deceptively modest appearance: a single vertical line, adorned formally top and bottom with little horizontal hat and shoes. Just a vertical line? Oh, please. It's the one letter that arrogates to itself the singular first person. When someone mentions I they are always talking about the most important person they know, every time. Then there's the little matter of the pronunciation, most especially that long I, again for the singular first person. One vocal noise is not enough for this imp, at least not since the Middle Ages. Whereas once (and still, in most European languages) we were only required to bleat "eee" in order to sound it, now we must throw an "ahh" in front of that, very nearly multisyllabic style. This is so firmly embedded that ahh-eee, for one, find that ahh-eee must take a moment and listen to what ahh-eee am saying when ahh-eee say ahh-eee. Trahh-eee it yourself. Note the jaw movement. I am also frankly puzzled how the rock star Prince, in his still handy and often useful and even prescient compressions of the language 30 years ago, for example reducing "you" to the letter U (and U know we'll be talking about that again), a favorite I believe of smartphone users everywhere now. He complicated I in a wonderfully poetic way with the graphic image of an eyeball. Not sure how much  like that in practical use, however, because 'm not sure it quite registers properly in the reading, if you see what  mean. 'm just not going to use it ever, starting now until forever. I mean it. It's just utterly, strangely counterintuitive for reading. Yet makes sense when viewed as the secret actual ego of the letter I, its id let's say, betraying its profound narcissism. Prince's I presumes itself to be the naked window to the soul itself. Nice one. It is otherwise unprepossessing, this phallic rod—9th letter of the alphabet, third vowel. But I say again: don't be fooled here. I has ambitions to be the all of everything. If you took a poll, you would find that a near absolute majority always agrees with I. These people have no scruples and fewer morals to clutter their terrible predispositions and inclinations. They only think of I. In its lowercase version it has planetary pretensions, the only letter in the English alphabet with a satellite detached yet forever attending it, that dot which you must dot as you also must cross Ts. Ha—when comes, at long last, the eclipse, I? I ask U. I blends with E to inflect the sound in either long direction—U say E-ther, I say I-ther—at random, willy-nilly, depending on the choice of the speaker. But that's neither here nor there, either.

Thursday, June 04, 2015


Let's hear it for breathing. The letter H is a funny thing, funny peculiar not funny haha. It poses formally as an exhalation of breath, and even that is dropped at the start of words in some dialects, such as British. But then it goes behind the scenes and collaborates with other letters to pervert their purposes and its own and produce a variety of sounds, many of which, in a rational universe, would have their own unique letters. Take H with C as in, e.g., "church." Why couldn't that sound be assigned to C, which is otherwise such a shameless fraud, masquerading as K or S? Speaking of S, how about H with it, producing a sound that has only one meaning in society, aka STFU. I ask you, what does that sound have to do with either S or H (beyond a certain sibilance)? Then there is H with T, another fundamental sound element of English but also one not appearing everywhere and thus notoriously difficult for native speakers of some other languages, such as many Asian derivatives. Yet more frauds: H with G and H with P, as in "laugh" or "physiology," which are perfectly adequately covered by F. And can anyone anywhere explain the pairing with W. Wut? Oh, H, that sly shape-shifting ape-shaped letter, going on its rounds about the language, sowing trouble and confusion wherever it goes. How about that debate over the indefinite article? Some say it is without exception "a," while others argue for "an" in certain specific situations, such as "history." They seem to believe that "an history of New England" somehow sounds "better," which I happen to believe is a classist reverse-engineered artifact of that H-dropping British accent we spoke of a moment ago, which also sounds "better" to some ears. Can you detect I am an absolutist on this question? It's "a," only, for words beginning with H. Except when it is absolutely silent, as in "honor." Oh bother. Speaking of foreign noises in foreign languages, I have the impression that H in Arabic and perhaps other languages of the Middle East and elsewhere, can take on that non-vocalized rasping throat-clearing sound of the German "ch." We don't have much of that in English, the way other languages don't have much of "th." I do like the simplicity of the primary sound of H, that little exhalation of carbon dioxide. What else is close in terms of basic building blocks of the sounds a human mouth can produce? Perhaps S, or, on the vocalized front, U, by which I mean the schwa, "uhh." Hey, look, there are Hs aplenty to inflect solo vowel noises too: "ah," "eh," "oh," "uh." Quick: Which one of these things is not like the others? That's right, "eh," which is pronounced much less closely to its original vowel, usually rhyming with "gray," essentially a speech noise that asks either for confirmation of what was just said, or a request to another speaker to repeat something because the user is not sure he or she heard it correctly. H—busier with part-time work than you perhaps suspected.