Commentary Magazine


Topic: Oscar

Mark Zuckerberg as Time‘s ‘Person of the Year': A Brilliant Choice

As is always the case, it seems, Time magazine’s selection of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year is generating scorn and outrage from people who had their own candidates — the Tea Partier, for example, or Julian Assange, or Kim Kardashian (my choice). This is silly (yes, so is my choice). As is often the case, the true Person of the Year is the president of the United States, and Time picked Obama two years ago; it doesn’t want to get boring. In any case, the magazine rarely makes its choice based solely on whom it thinks is the dominant news or power figure. (When it makes a selection based on newsworthiness without paying heed to the sense people have that it is a kind of news Oscar, Time courts a kind of controversy its editors and business side generally don’t like at all. The magazine received tens of thousands of letters protesting its choice in 1979 of Ayatollah Khomeini, for example.)

In point of fact, Zuckerberg is a brilliant selection. He has changed the daily habits and practices of hundreds of millions of people in a shockingly short time (Facebook is all of five years old). Despite the claims that Facebook endangers marriages and encourages bullying and all that — all of which simply represents an adaptation of pre-Facebook human failings to a new technology rather than a wholly new form of destructive interaction — it seems to me to be far more benign than malign. In any case, its creation and success are significant events in the history of capitalism, communications, and social relations, and Zuckerberg is more likely than most leaders alive today to be remembered 100 years from now as a hinge figure in history. He may, in other words, be something more than simply Person of the Year.

As is always the case, it seems, Time magazine’s selection of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year is generating scorn and outrage from people who had their own candidates — the Tea Partier, for example, or Julian Assange, or Kim Kardashian (my choice). This is silly (yes, so is my choice). As is often the case, the true Person of the Year is the president of the United States, and Time picked Obama two years ago; it doesn’t want to get boring. In any case, the magazine rarely makes its choice based solely on whom it thinks is the dominant news or power figure. (When it makes a selection based on newsworthiness without paying heed to the sense people have that it is a kind of news Oscar, Time courts a kind of controversy its editors and business side generally don’t like at all. The magazine received tens of thousands of letters protesting its choice in 1979 of Ayatollah Khomeini, for example.)

In point of fact, Zuckerberg is a brilliant selection. He has changed the daily habits and practices of hundreds of millions of people in a shockingly short time (Facebook is all of five years old). Despite the claims that Facebook endangers marriages and encourages bullying and all that — all of which simply represents an adaptation of pre-Facebook human failings to a new technology rather than a wholly new form of destructive interaction — it seems to me to be far more benign than malign. In any case, its creation and success are significant events in the history of capitalism, communications, and social relations, and Zuckerberg is more likely than most leaders alive today to be remembered 100 years from now as a hinge figure in history. He may, in other words, be something more than simply Person of the Year.

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Christopher Hitchens, Jon Stewart, and More

In his moving article in Vanity Fair about his cancer, Christopher Hitchens disclosed that just before he went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he violently threw up — the result of the illness he had learned about that morning, when he woke unable to breathe, was barely able to cross his hotel room to call for help, and was saved by emergency treatment by doctors who did “quite a lot” of work on his heart and lungs and told him he needed to consult an oncologist immediately.

That evening he nevertheless appeared as scheduled on Stewart’s show (and then at the 92nd Street Y, where he threw up again), unwilling to disappoint his friends or miss the chance to sell his memoir. In the article, he did not describe what he said on The Daily Show, but his appearance there is worth remembering for reasons going beyond his extraordinary fortitude in proceeding with it.

The video is here. At the end, after discussing his work in a camp for revolutionaries in Cuba in the 60s, there was this colloquy:

Stewart: If you had been young today, going through this same sort of [unintelligible], where do you think your alliances would be, where do you think you would have—

Hitchens: Well, I teach at the New School, and I teach English and a lot of journalists and would-be journalists come, and I often hang out with young people who are journalists, and I’m sorry for them, in a way. Because what are they gonna do – I mean, are they going to say ‘I’m a global warming activist’? It’s not quite the same, is it?

Stewart: Isn’t it all the same once you realize that your idealism — you can use it to further your aims, [if] you realize that nothing is nirvana, nothing is perfect?

Hitchens: Oscar Wilde used to say that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth looking at. I used to think that was a beautiful statement. I don’t think that at all anymore. I tell you, to be honest, the most idealistic and brave and committed and intelligent young people that I know have joined the armed forces. And they are now guarding us while we sleep in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. … I never would have expected that would be what I would say about the students I have to teach.

Stewart’s audience, which is often raucous, listened to this in silence.

Hitchens writes in Hitch-22 that these days he thinks about “the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest [for Utopia] has led” and that he came to realize that “the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer others, was the American one.” His appearance on the Daily Show was an example not only of his physical courage but also of the intellectual audacity that pervades his book.

In his moving article in Vanity Fair about his cancer, Christopher Hitchens disclosed that just before he went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he violently threw up — the result of the illness he had learned about that morning, when he woke unable to breathe, was barely able to cross his hotel room to call for help, and was saved by emergency treatment by doctors who did “quite a lot” of work on his heart and lungs and told him he needed to consult an oncologist immediately.

That evening he nevertheless appeared as scheduled on Stewart’s show (and then at the 92nd Street Y, where he threw up again), unwilling to disappoint his friends or miss the chance to sell his memoir. In the article, he did not describe what he said on The Daily Show, but his appearance there is worth remembering for reasons going beyond his extraordinary fortitude in proceeding with it.

The video is here. At the end, after discussing his work in a camp for revolutionaries in Cuba in the 60s, there was this colloquy:

Stewart: If you had been young today, going through this same sort of [unintelligible], where do you think your alliances would be, where do you think you would have—

Hitchens: Well, I teach at the New School, and I teach English and a lot of journalists and would-be journalists come, and I often hang out with young people who are journalists, and I’m sorry for them, in a way. Because what are they gonna do – I mean, are they going to say ‘I’m a global warming activist’? It’s not quite the same, is it?

Stewart: Isn’t it all the same once you realize that your idealism — you can use it to further your aims, [if] you realize that nothing is nirvana, nothing is perfect?

Hitchens: Oscar Wilde used to say that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth looking at. I used to think that was a beautiful statement. I don’t think that at all anymore. I tell you, to be honest, the most idealistic and brave and committed and intelligent young people that I know have joined the armed forces. And they are now guarding us while we sleep in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. … I never would have expected that would be what I would say about the students I have to teach.

Stewart’s audience, which is often raucous, listened to this in silence.

Hitchens writes in Hitch-22 that these days he thinks about “the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest [for Utopia] has led” and that he came to realize that “the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer others, was the American one.” His appearance on the Daily Show was an example not only of his physical courage but also of the intellectual audacity that pervades his book.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

The local Pennsylvania media find Joe Sestak’s answers on earmarks to be all wet (“a vague, disingenuous attempt to polish his own credentials”): “The Democratic congressman and Senate candidate should work a little harder to reconcile taking campaign contributions from those benefiting from federal ‘earmarks’ (which direct money to be spent on specific projects) while claiming ‘a personal policy’ against doing so.”

As hopes for direct peace talks slip away, Hillary frantically “burns up the phone lines” to the players in the Middle East.

Obama’s approval ratings in Gallup continue to nosedive (45% approval, 49% disapproval).

A federal-court judge torpedoes the Arizona immigration law (a ruling certain to be appealed): “Judge [Susan] Bolton took aim at the parts of the law that have generated the most controversy, issuing a preliminary injunction against sections that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times. Judge [Susan] Bolton put those sections on hold while she continued to hear the larger issues in the challenges to the law. ‘Preserving the status quo through a preliminary injunction is less harmful than allowing state laws that are likely pre-empted by federal law to be enforced,’ she said. ‘There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.'”

Democrats are awaiting the November wave – so what’s the message for avoiding a wipeout? The other guys are wackos. This is the argument: “The Republicans want to be mayors of crazy-town. They’ve embraced a fringe and proto-racist isolationist and ignorant conservative populism that has no solutions for fixing anything and the collective intelligence of a wine flask.” How can the voters resist?

Al Gore is in hot water: “Before all the unpleasantness, the former vice president was mainly known as the planet’s premiere environmentalist and anti-global-warming crusader. He has been a bestselling author, Oscar-winning filmmaker, successful businessman and, lest we forget, the man millions still believe should have been sworn in as president in January 2001. But now the 62-year-old Gore is tabloid fodder—notorious as a ‘crazed sex poodle.'”

Obama’s plea that he really isn’t anti-business is being drowned out: “Republicans and business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have driven home the message that the Obama administration is curtailing private-sector growth. They point to tax increases proposed by the White House as well as an uncertain regulatory environment brought about by massive reforms to the healthcare sector and Wall Street. Businesses are said to be sitting on $2 trillion in income but are not hiring, partly because of the administration’s policies, according to Republicans.”

The local Pennsylvania media find Joe Sestak’s answers on earmarks to be all wet (“a vague, disingenuous attempt to polish his own credentials”): “The Democratic congressman and Senate candidate should work a little harder to reconcile taking campaign contributions from those benefiting from federal ‘earmarks’ (which direct money to be spent on specific projects) while claiming ‘a personal policy’ against doing so.”

As hopes for direct peace talks slip away, Hillary frantically “burns up the phone lines” to the players in the Middle East.

Obama’s approval ratings in Gallup continue to nosedive (45% approval, 49% disapproval).

A federal-court judge torpedoes the Arizona immigration law (a ruling certain to be appealed): “Judge [Susan] Bolton took aim at the parts of the law that have generated the most controversy, issuing a preliminary injunction against sections that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and that required immigrants to carry their papers at all times. Judge [Susan] Bolton put those sections on hold while she continued to hear the larger issues in the challenges to the law. ‘Preserving the status quo through a preliminary injunction is less harmful than allowing state laws that are likely pre-empted by federal law to be enforced,’ she said. ‘There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.'”

Democrats are awaiting the November wave – so what’s the message for avoiding a wipeout? The other guys are wackos. This is the argument: “The Republicans want to be mayors of crazy-town. They’ve embraced a fringe and proto-racist isolationist and ignorant conservative populism that has no solutions for fixing anything and the collective intelligence of a wine flask.” How can the voters resist?

Al Gore is in hot water: “Before all the unpleasantness, the former vice president was mainly known as the planet’s premiere environmentalist and anti-global-warming crusader. He has been a bestselling author, Oscar-winning filmmaker, successful businessman and, lest we forget, the man millions still believe should have been sworn in as president in January 2001. But now the 62-year-old Gore is tabloid fodder—notorious as a ‘crazed sex poodle.'”

Obama’s plea that he really isn’t anti-business is being drowned out: “Republicans and business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have driven home the message that the Obama administration is curtailing private-sector growth. They point to tax increases proposed by the White House as well as an uncertain regulatory environment brought about by massive reforms to the healthcare sector and Wall Street. Businesses are said to be sitting on $2 trillion in income but are not hiring, partly because of the administration’s policies, according to Republicans.”

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Hollywood Celebrates

Will there be fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl? A fantastic bash in his honor, albeit with the guest of honor absent? Yes, from coast to coast, the moral zombies who populate the big and small screen are no doubt jumping for joy that Roman Polanski will not be extradited to stand trial for his rape of a 13-year old child. As a colleague pointed out, really, the man has suffered enough. (“The 77-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker was first imprisoned and then confined to his ski chalet in the Alpine resort of Gastaad with an electronic foot bracelet.”) The Swiss judiciary seems to have aced out the Nobelians as the best exemplar of the debasement of European society, as we are reminded that “the decision constituted a victory not only for Polanski but also for a broad array of European intellectual and political figures who had come to his defense with petitions and statements of outrage denouncing the effort to continue prosecution after so many years.”

The Swiss Ministry of Justice claims that the verdict is not a statement about Polanski’s guilt or innocence:

The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that the decision reflected doubts over the legal strength of the U.S. extradition request, in particular concerning negotiations between Los Angeles prosecutors and Polanski’s U.S. lawyers at the time. …

Switzerland blamed U.S. authorities for failing to provide confidential testimony about Polanski’s sentencing procedure in 1977-1978. The Swiss government said it had sought confidential testimony given on Jan. 26 by Roger Gunson, the Los Angeles attorney in charge of the original prosecution against Polanski.

Actually, it’s not a statement about Polanski at all. It is, however, a vivid reflection of the mindset of today’s elites (both in Europe and America). If you smoke or drive an SUV, you’re a social pariah. But if you’re an aging millionaire who drugged a 13-year-old child before raping her, why, you needn’t fear that you’ll lose their admiration or support. To the contrary, a special Oscar may await!

Will there be fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl? A fantastic bash in his honor, albeit with the guest of honor absent? Yes, from coast to coast, the moral zombies who populate the big and small screen are no doubt jumping for joy that Roman Polanski will not be extradited to stand trial for his rape of a 13-year old child. As a colleague pointed out, really, the man has suffered enough. (“The 77-year-old Oscar-winning filmmaker was first imprisoned and then confined to his ski chalet in the Alpine resort of Gastaad with an electronic foot bracelet.”) The Swiss judiciary seems to have aced out the Nobelians as the best exemplar of the debasement of European society, as we are reminded that “the decision constituted a victory not only for Polanski but also for a broad array of European intellectual and political figures who had come to his defense with petitions and statements of outrage denouncing the effort to continue prosecution after so many years.”

The Swiss Ministry of Justice claims that the verdict is not a statement about Polanski’s guilt or innocence:

The Swiss Justice Ministry said in a statement that the decision reflected doubts over the legal strength of the U.S. extradition request, in particular concerning negotiations between Los Angeles prosecutors and Polanski’s U.S. lawyers at the time. …

Switzerland blamed U.S. authorities for failing to provide confidential testimony about Polanski’s sentencing procedure in 1977-1978. The Swiss government said it had sought confidential testimony given on Jan. 26 by Roger Gunson, the Los Angeles attorney in charge of the original prosecution against Polanski.

Actually, it’s not a statement about Polanski at all. It is, however, a vivid reflection of the mindset of today’s elites (both in Europe and America). If you smoke or drive an SUV, you’re a social pariah. But if you’re an aging millionaire who drugged a 13-year-old child before raping her, why, you needn’t fear that you’ll lose their admiration or support. To the contrary, a special Oscar may await!

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A Blog Post I Wish I’d Written

On hearing a bon mot from someone, Oscar Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that.”

“You will, Oscar, you will,” replied his friend James McNeill Whistler.

I know what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s blog post over at the American Interest on the Tea Party movement. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, indeed, “I wish I’d said that.”

Mead puts the movement firmly in the context of American history, demonstrating the similarity of this movement with previous populist movements in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. All those movements changed the country profoundly and were anti-elitist in nature. As Mead explains,

The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

While it is way too early to tell how powerful the Tea Party movement will prove to be, it is certainly anti-elitist to the core. But this time, unlike in Jackson’s and Roosevelt’s days, the elite doesn’t really recognize itself as being an elite. They think they are doing the people’s work, even if the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. Like Mead, I think those elites are soon to find out what the word democracy really means.

As Mead points out, the movement does not yet have its Jackson, Roosevelt, or Reagan to lead and personify it, making it still somewhat inchoate. But great movements make great leaders at least as often as the other way around.

If you want a beautiful example of the power of history to explicate the present, I recommend this brief and profound essay by Walter Russell Mead.

On hearing a bon mot from someone, Oscar Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that.”

“You will, Oscar, you will,” replied his friend James McNeill Whistler.

I know what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s blog post over at the American Interest on the Tea Party movement. It’s a brilliant piece of work and, indeed, “I wish I’d said that.”

Mead puts the movement firmly in the context of American history, demonstrating the similarity of this movement with previous populist movements in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. All those movements changed the country profoundly and were anti-elitist in nature. As Mead explains,

The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

While it is way too early to tell how powerful the Tea Party movement will prove to be, it is certainly anti-elitist to the core. But this time, unlike in Jackson’s and Roosevelt’s days, the elite doesn’t really recognize itself as being an elite. They think they are doing the people’s work, even if the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them. Like Mead, I think those elites are soon to find out what the word democracy really means.

As Mead points out, the movement does not yet have its Jackson, Roosevelt, or Reagan to lead and personify it, making it still somewhat inchoate. But great movements make great leaders at least as often as the other way around.

If you want a beautiful example of the power of history to explicate the present, I recommend this brief and profound essay by Walter Russell Mead.

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And the Best Picture Oscar Goes to … Everybody

I hate the new Best Picture scheme. Sure there are always laudable efforts that get overlooked when you reduce the nominees to five in number, but this list makes it seems as if all you had to do was get your film uploaded onto YouTube and you were in:

“Avatar”
“The Blind Side”
“District 9″
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“A Serious Man”
“Up”
“Up in the Air”

Where’s Underworld: Rise of the Lycans? Or Confessions of a Shopaholic?

And how is it that five of those Best Picture nominees didn’t also rate Best Director nods? Were they first-rate films helmed by second-rate talents?

What makes this all the more obnoxious is that the best film of 2009 is missing altogether: Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo. In case you haven’t seen it (which is almost a sure best), imagine that Federico Fellini, Quentin Tarantino, Ken Russell, and Oliver Stone collaborated on a fictionalized account of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti’s career, and you’re almost there. Fast, funny, witty, creepy, telling — with an extraordinary performance by Toni Servillo, who plays Andreotti as Renfield to his own Dracula.

Oh well. I console myself that the greatest director this country ever produced, Orson Welles, never won a Best Director Oscar. (At least the second best, John Ford, won four, almost as a kind of compensation.) And of course, that Red Buttons never got a dinner…

I hate the new Best Picture scheme. Sure there are always laudable efforts that get overlooked when you reduce the nominees to five in number, but this list makes it seems as if all you had to do was get your film uploaded onto YouTube and you were in:

“Avatar”
“The Blind Side”
“District 9″
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“A Serious Man”
“Up”
“Up in the Air”

Where’s Underworld: Rise of the Lycans? Or Confessions of a Shopaholic?

And how is it that five of those Best Picture nominees didn’t also rate Best Director nods? Were they first-rate films helmed by second-rate talents?

What makes this all the more obnoxious is that the best film of 2009 is missing altogether: Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo. In case you haven’t seen it (which is almost a sure best), imagine that Federico Fellini, Quentin Tarantino, Ken Russell, and Oliver Stone collaborated on a fictionalized account of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti’s career, and you’re almost there. Fast, funny, witty, creepy, telling — with an extraordinary performance by Toni Servillo, who plays Andreotti as Renfield to his own Dracula.

Oh well. I console myself that the greatest director this country ever produced, Orson Welles, never won a Best Director Oscar. (At least the second best, John Ford, won four, almost as a kind of compensation.) And of course, that Red Buttons never got a dinner…

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Friedman’s New Cold War

“The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war,” writes Tom Friedman in this morning’s New York Times.  “Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president-but this cold war is with Iran.”

Clearly the Iranians see it as Friedman does.  To support his cold war thesis, he cites a Sunday editorial from Kayhan, an Iranian daily: “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the United States.”  Yet just because Tehran sees us as its principal adversary does not mean that we have to view Tehran as ours.  And I believe that we should not.  After all, Friedman has violated Oscar Wilde’s first rule of international relations: “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

Once a nation chooses its enemy, it inevitably selects its friends.  If Iran were the Soviet Union, then we would naturally side with Tehran’s adversaries, the generally autocratic and corrupt Sunni Arab states.  Indeed, Friedman lists them as our allies in his “cold war.”  This makes perfect sense if the United States were, like England once was, just another offshore balancer.

Yet America is more than one of those.  If there is any justification for us to exercise power beyond our borders, it is because we stand for a set of important principles.  Because Iranian leaders oppose all that Americans believe-representative governance and free markets, for instance-they are by definition our foes.

And to defend our principles we should avoid the unsavory bargains that nations tend to make when they see themselves involved in global existential struggles.  Nothing undermines us more than failure to adhere to what we believe.  We can achieve short-term objectives with cynical arrangements-like supporting the Shah, for example-but we usually end up creating more problems than we solve.

Yes, we should oppose Iran today.  But we can do that best when it is in the context of an effort to defend values and international norms.  The goal for “Team America,” as Friedman calls us, is not to prevail over “Iran.”  It is to establish a just and peaceful international system-with a free and democratic Iran as a part of it.

“The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war,” writes Tom Friedman in this morning’s New York Times.  “Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president-but this cold war is with Iran.”

Clearly the Iranians see it as Friedman does.  To support his cold war thesis, he cites a Sunday editorial from Kayhan, an Iranian daily: “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the United States.”  Yet just because Tehran sees us as its principal adversary does not mean that we have to view Tehran as ours.  And I believe that we should not.  After all, Friedman has violated Oscar Wilde’s first rule of international relations: “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

Once a nation chooses its enemy, it inevitably selects its friends.  If Iran were the Soviet Union, then we would naturally side with Tehran’s adversaries, the generally autocratic and corrupt Sunni Arab states.  Indeed, Friedman lists them as our allies in his “cold war.”  This makes perfect sense if the United States were, like England once was, just another offshore balancer.

Yet America is more than one of those.  If there is any justification for us to exercise power beyond our borders, it is because we stand for a set of important principles.  Because Iranian leaders oppose all that Americans believe-representative governance and free markets, for instance-they are by definition our foes.

And to defend our principles we should avoid the unsavory bargains that nations tend to make when they see themselves involved in global existential struggles.  Nothing undermines us more than failure to adhere to what we believe.  We can achieve short-term objectives with cynical arrangements-like supporting the Shah, for example-but we usually end up creating more problems than we solve.

Yes, we should oppose Iran today.  But we can do that best when it is in the context of an effort to defend values and international norms.  The goal for “Team America,” as Friedman calls us, is not to prevail over “Iran.”  It is to establish a just and peaceful international system-with a free and democratic Iran as a part of it.

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And the Oscar for Biggest Hypocrite Goes to. . .

The most interesting thing the French actress and new Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard said in a recent interview is not that she believes 9/11 was an inside job. There are plenty of big names in American entertainment who’ve said the same. Willie Nelson, Charlie Sheen, and Mos Def, for example, have brought their extensive political and engineering backgrounds to bear on the “question” and have determined that the perceived attack was really a flawlessly executed succession of high-tech tricks in a global Rube Goldberg scheme intended to . . .who knows? Something about insurance, gold, Israel, PNAC, and Iraq, I think.

No, the most interesting thing this successful, famous and wealthy Academy Awards winner said is that she’s not interested in prestige or riches, more specifically that she has no “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” Presumably, she was forced into a profession in which all that cumbersome money and adoration gets heaped upon those who make it. Furthermore, she must have been dragged kicking and screaming to the Academy Awards and forced, when her name was called, to cry and gasp and swoon as she did (or perhaps she was genuinely distraught to be the beneficiary of so much Anglo-Saxon recognition.)

Ms. Cotillard’s anti-Anglo-Saxonism and her painful paradox made me think instantly of the following passage from Walter Russell Mead’s book, God and Gold:

The true Waspophobe hates America because it is an insolent sea of vulgarity in which a triumphant and unrestrained rabble heedlessly treads underfoot the complex and subtle achievements that only the cultivated minority can support; he also hates America because it is a land of hideous inequality where the all-powerful plutocrats trample the silently suffering and impoverished masses into dust . . .The American must be hated because he is indifferent to the world, wrapped up in his own concerns to the exclusion of all else; he must be resisted because he is inflexibly and permanently determined to impose his values on the rest of the world. One despises America as a contemptible, exhausted, decadent society; one resists it because it is voraciously dynamic and expansive.

The weeping Oscar-winner hates America because it is the culmination of everything she wishes she did not desire.

On a related note, it’s worth commending a particular American actress who has come to an unpopular conclusion after surveying a much-criticized theater of “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” After visiting Iraq, Angelina Jolie wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we intended to do.

I wonder: Does Marion Cotillard think Angelina is in on it, too?

The most interesting thing the French actress and new Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard said in a recent interview is not that she believes 9/11 was an inside job. There are plenty of big names in American entertainment who’ve said the same. Willie Nelson, Charlie Sheen, and Mos Def, for example, have brought their extensive political and engineering backgrounds to bear on the “question” and have determined that the perceived attack was really a flawlessly executed succession of high-tech tricks in a global Rube Goldberg scheme intended to . . .who knows? Something about insurance, gold, Israel, PNAC, and Iraq, I think.

No, the most interesting thing this successful, famous and wealthy Academy Awards winner said is that she’s not interested in prestige or riches, more specifically that she has no “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” Presumably, she was forced into a profession in which all that cumbersome money and adoration gets heaped upon those who make it. Furthermore, she must have been dragged kicking and screaming to the Academy Awards and forced, when her name was called, to cry and gasp and swoon as she did (or perhaps she was genuinely distraught to be the beneficiary of so much Anglo-Saxon recognition.)

Ms. Cotillard’s anti-Anglo-Saxonism and her painful paradox made me think instantly of the following passage from Walter Russell Mead’s book, God and Gold:

The true Waspophobe hates America because it is an insolent sea of vulgarity in which a triumphant and unrestrained rabble heedlessly treads underfoot the complex and subtle achievements that only the cultivated minority can support; he also hates America because it is a land of hideous inequality where the all-powerful plutocrats trample the silently suffering and impoverished masses into dust . . .The American must be hated because he is indifferent to the world, wrapped up in his own concerns to the exclusion of all else; he must be resisted because he is inflexibly and permanently determined to impose his values on the rest of the world. One despises America as a contemptible, exhausted, decadent society; one resists it because it is voraciously dynamic and expansive.

The weeping Oscar-winner hates America because it is the culmination of everything she wishes she did not desire.

On a related note, it’s worth commending a particular American actress who has come to an unpopular conclusion after surveying a much-criticized theater of “Anglo-Saxon ambition.” After visiting Iraq, Angelina Jolie wrote in a Washington Post op-ed:

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq. They have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we intended to do.

I wonder: Does Marion Cotillard think Angelina is in on it, too?

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Oscar Predictions

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

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The Democrats Are Having All The Fun

What a depressing night for Republicans! Whatever the Democratic debate lacked in substance, it made up for in sheer exuberance. With the writers strike sucking the fun out of Hollywood society, the Obama-Clinton debate felt like an opening night gala. And what a show! The rallies outside, the opening photo-op, the cheers, the friendly banter, the applause, the movie stars, the booing of Wolf Blitzer’s editorializing, the glamour of the Kodak Theater. It was an orgy of Democratic chest-pounding and self-congratulation worthy of Oscar night, John. Who couldn’t enjoy this after last night’s somber and often angry snipe-fest at the mausoleum that is the Reagan library?

What ought to haunt the GOP the most is that this Democratic contest might not be settled until April 22, the Pennsylvania primary. That means another 10 weeks of this remarkable Democratic road show while McCain continues to debate Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul on Fox News.

A McCain-Clinton or McCain-Obama debate might make all this look very different, especially if any serious discussion of taxes or foreign policy emerges. But at the moment, it looks like the Democrats are hosting a much better frat-house rush party.

What a depressing night for Republicans! Whatever the Democratic debate lacked in substance, it made up for in sheer exuberance. With the writers strike sucking the fun out of Hollywood society, the Obama-Clinton debate felt like an opening night gala. And what a show! The rallies outside, the opening photo-op, the cheers, the friendly banter, the applause, the movie stars, the booing of Wolf Blitzer’s editorializing, the glamour of the Kodak Theater. It was an orgy of Democratic chest-pounding and self-congratulation worthy of Oscar night, John. Who couldn’t enjoy this after last night’s somber and often angry snipe-fest at the mausoleum that is the Reagan library?

What ought to haunt the GOP the most is that this Democratic contest might not be settled until April 22, the Pennsylvania primary. That means another 10 weeks of this remarkable Democratic road show while McCain continues to debate Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul on Fox News.

A McCain-Clinton or McCain-Obama debate might make all this look very different, especially if any serious discussion of taxes or foreign policy emerges. But at the moment, it looks like the Democrats are hosting a much better frat-house rush party.

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Listening to Clinton and Obama Speak…

…you would think, seriously, that the United States was on the verge of total and complete collapse in about three minutes. Meanwhile, CNN has cut repeatedly to an audience of Americans in desperate circumstances — Americans like Rob Reiner, Garry Shandling, and four-time Oscar winner James L. Brooks.

…you would think, seriously, that the United States was on the verge of total and complete collapse in about three minutes. Meanwhile, CNN has cut repeatedly to an audience of Americans in desperate circumstances — Americans like Rob Reiner, Garry Shandling, and four-time Oscar winner James L. Brooks.

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The Bloody End

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

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Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.

And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.

And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.

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Oscar Time!

I’m on record as being an Oscar-cynic; as far as I’m concerned, the annual awards ceremony is, rather than a celebration of cinematic accomplishment, primarily an excuse for Hollywood to indulge in awesome displays of lavish narcissism. Everything about the night, from the $40,000 gift bags to the six-figure formal-wear to the clunky mechanical stage pieces, screams “Look at me! Look how wonderful I am! I deserve an award!

But as often as not, those receiving the awards don’t deserve them. Any idea that the Academy is a reliable judge of cinematic merit should have gone out the window by the time the organization named Crash Best Picture.

Yet for movie fans, it’s nonetheless hard not to be swept up in the buzz and excitement. This year, that’s especially true, as the nominations are unusually strong, particularly in the Best Picture Category. There Will Be Blood, Juno, and No Country for Old Men are all worthy contenders, and even Michael Clayton was mildly enjoyable, if overrated. Only Atonement, the lackluster period picture based on Ian McEwan’s novel, stands out as a poor selection – and this was to be expected, as it was virtually assured it a slot by its literary pedigree.

A few people seem to be surprised by the nomination of Juno, a scrappy, sharp-witted film about teen pregnancy by Thank You for Smoking director Jason Reitman, but its nomination is in keeping with the Academy’s tradition of nominating one slightly edgy but successful indie-style (if not actually independent) film each year; think of Little Miss Sunshine, Fargo, Moulin Rouge, or Lost in Translation. Call it the Pulp Fiction nod.

Instead, the film that stands out as odd to me is Michael Clayton. Yes, it received generally favorable coverage, but beyond a marvelously dour star turn by George Clooney in the title role, there wasn’t much to it beyond dreary moodiness and a melancholy anti-corporatism, and neither the critical buzz nor the box-office returns were particularly notable. The only explanation I can come up with is that it was nominated as the token “political issue film” because none of the year’s hideous crop of Iraq-war movies could justifiably take the slot. But who knows what lurks in the minds of the Academy’s members.

I’m on record as being an Oscar-cynic; as far as I’m concerned, the annual awards ceremony is, rather than a celebration of cinematic accomplishment, primarily an excuse for Hollywood to indulge in awesome displays of lavish narcissism. Everything about the night, from the $40,000 gift bags to the six-figure formal-wear to the clunky mechanical stage pieces, screams “Look at me! Look how wonderful I am! I deserve an award!

But as often as not, those receiving the awards don’t deserve them. Any idea that the Academy is a reliable judge of cinematic merit should have gone out the window by the time the organization named Crash Best Picture.

Yet for movie fans, it’s nonetheless hard not to be swept up in the buzz and excitement. This year, that’s especially true, as the nominations are unusually strong, particularly in the Best Picture Category. There Will Be Blood, Juno, and No Country for Old Men are all worthy contenders, and even Michael Clayton was mildly enjoyable, if overrated. Only Atonement, the lackluster period picture based on Ian McEwan’s novel, stands out as a poor selection – and this was to be expected, as it was virtually assured it a slot by its literary pedigree.

A few people seem to be surprised by the nomination of Juno, a scrappy, sharp-witted film about teen pregnancy by Thank You for Smoking director Jason Reitman, but its nomination is in keeping with the Academy’s tradition of nominating one slightly edgy but successful indie-style (if not actually independent) film each year; think of Little Miss Sunshine, Fargo, Moulin Rouge, or Lost in Translation. Call it the Pulp Fiction nod.

Instead, the film that stands out as odd to me is Michael Clayton. Yes, it received generally favorable coverage, but beyond a marvelously dour star turn by George Clooney in the title role, there wasn’t much to it beyond dreary moodiness and a melancholy anti-corporatism, and neither the critical buzz nor the box-office returns were particularly notable. The only explanation I can come up with is that it was nominated as the token “political issue film” because none of the year’s hideous crop of Iraq-war movies could justifiably take the slot. But who knows what lurks in the minds of the Academy’s members.

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More Hollywood Iraq Madness

Yet another Iraq movie started shooting this week. This one is a fictionalized version of the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Director Paul Greengrass is one of the most impressive talents working in film today, and he’s secured Amy Ryan, a likely Oscar winner for Gone Baby Gone, and Greg Kinnear to star with Matt Damon. Ryan plays a New York Times reporter, and the apparent point of the movie is that the Army is making a huge mistake by staying holed up away from the Iraqi public in the heavily fortified Baghdad Green Zone.One of the many problems you face when you make a movie about Iraq is this: it takes years to put a movie together, by which time you can bet that whatever you are saying will be outdated. Since the Surge, for example, the Army no longer sticks to its Green Zone-think. And anyway, the armchair generals who have been offering their wisdom to actual military officers since day one keep contradicting themselves. An excellent example is No End In Sight, which has won a shelf full of awards for Best Documentary of 2007. The movie argues at length that the American forces made a huge mistake by keeping inside the Green Zone, and offers up as an example of what they should have done the tale of the U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. It’s true that Viera de Mello operated within a much more open and welcoming site. It’s also true that he was promptly killed by a bomb. To add insult to it all, the book on which the Greengrass film is based was written by a Washington Post man, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, yet it’s a Times reporter who is a lead character. If there’s anything the public likes less than an antiwar Iraq movie, it’s a movie about how wonderful journalists are.

Yet another Iraq movie started shooting this week. This one is a fictionalized version of the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Director Paul Greengrass is one of the most impressive talents working in film today, and he’s secured Amy Ryan, a likely Oscar winner for Gone Baby Gone, and Greg Kinnear to star with Matt Damon. Ryan plays a New York Times reporter, and the apparent point of the movie is that the Army is making a huge mistake by staying holed up away from the Iraqi public in the heavily fortified Baghdad Green Zone.One of the many problems you face when you make a movie about Iraq is this: it takes years to put a movie together, by which time you can bet that whatever you are saying will be outdated. Since the Surge, for example, the Army no longer sticks to its Green Zone-think. And anyway, the armchair generals who have been offering their wisdom to actual military officers since day one keep contradicting themselves. An excellent example is No End In Sight, which has won a shelf full of awards for Best Documentary of 2007. The movie argues at length that the American forces made a huge mistake by keeping inside the Green Zone, and offers up as an example of what they should have done the tale of the U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello. It’s true that Viera de Mello operated within a much more open and welcoming site. It’s also true that he was promptly killed by a bomb. To add insult to it all, the book on which the Greengrass film is based was written by a Washington Post man, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, yet it’s a Times reporter who is a lead character. If there’s anything the public likes less than an antiwar Iraq movie, it’s a movie about how wonderful journalists are.

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The Movie That Wants You To Be Extremely Depressed

Last night, my wife and I got around to seeing the acclaimed Away from Her, featuring sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Julie Christie as a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her husband is then forced to watch as she forms a loving bond with a male patient at her nursing home, and must find a way to reunite his wife with the object of her love when his rival is removed from the home. It features many images of snow, always a sign of deep meaning, as is the fact that the husband reads to his wife from W.H. Auden. There is a plaintive and whispery soundtrack. The writer and director is a very sensitive actress named Sarah Polley, who has made a habit of staring balefully into the camera to express her pain and anguish. Scene after scene in Away from Her features the husband receiving one body blow or another from his wife’s declining perceptual abilities. And not just his; at one point a fellow patient with Alzheimer’s forgets how to use sign language with her daughter, and she was the only person in the family who bothered to learn sign language, so now the daughter no longer has anyone to talk with. As my wife wept and sobbed and sobbed and wept, I found myself getting strangely angry. “Don’t worry,” I said after yet another agonizing moment. “In the next scene, the actors actually will reach through the screen and pull our toenails out one by one.” So if you want to see a film that tries very hard to depress you, I strongly recommend Away From Her. As for me, I just wanted to get Away From Her.

Last night, my wife and I got around to seeing the acclaimed Away from Her, featuring sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Julie Christie as a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her husband is then forced to watch as she forms a loving bond with a male patient at her nursing home, and must find a way to reunite his wife with the object of her love when his rival is removed from the home. It features many images of snow, always a sign of deep meaning, as is the fact that the husband reads to his wife from W.H. Auden. There is a plaintive and whispery soundtrack. The writer and director is a very sensitive actress named Sarah Polley, who has made a habit of staring balefully into the camera to express her pain and anguish. Scene after scene in Away from Her features the husband receiving one body blow or another from his wife’s declining perceptual abilities. And not just his; at one point a fellow patient with Alzheimer’s forgets how to use sign language with her daughter, and she was the only person in the family who bothered to learn sign language, so now the daughter no longer has anyone to talk with. As my wife wept and sobbed and sobbed and wept, I found myself getting strangely angry. “Don’t worry,” I said after yet another agonizing moment. “In the next scene, the actors actually will reach through the screen and pull our toenails out one by one.” So if you want to see a film that tries very hard to depress you, I strongly recommend Away From Her. As for me, I just wanted to get Away From Her.

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Bookshelf

• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

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• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

Having edited a couple of anthologies myself, I know how hard it is to assemble a truly representative selection of writings on any subject, much less to write an introduction that makes collective sense of them all. Thus it is with an indissoluble blend of admiration and humility that I declare The Spirit of the Age to be as fine a book of its kind as could possibly be published. Not only does it cover all the bases in an absolute minimum of space, but Himmelfarb’s introduction is a miracle of clarity and concision. Never has the essence of Victorian thought been summed up so pithily:

To Carlyle, the tragedy of the age was that it was “at once destitute of faith and terrified of scepticism.” To Bulwer, it was the end of the “romantic age” and the beginning of a bleak utilitarianism. To Mill it was an age of “intellectual anarchy,” when the old virtues and moral authorities had died and new ones had not yet been born. Yet there was another aspect to the age that belied these dire diagnoses. So far from being “destitute of faith,” it was buoyed up by the Evangelical spirit that was the heir of Methodism…. If there is one word that is common to the whole of the Victorian age, it is earnestness—the religious earnestness of the early period transmuted into a moral and intellectual earnestness.

I was surprised—and pleased—to see that Himmelfarb has abridged some of the essays reprinted in The Spirit of the Age. Victorian earnestness and Victorian longwindedness (by our standards, not theirs) often went hand in hand, and by discreetly applying the blue pencil to certain of these pieces, they have been made significantly more readable. Himmelfarb apologizes in the introduction for her “temerity in doing what a Victorian editor might not have done,” but I applaud her for it. So, I suspect, will you.

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ATONEMENT: The Same Surprise Twice

Your reaction to the film version of Atonement, which opens December 7, may depend on whether you can be shocked twice by the same revelation.

Ian McEwan’s superlative 2001 novel starts with a fusty Victorian framework — a country house, an upstairs-downstairs flirtation and a mislaid letter — that McEwan soon charges with eroticism. The tale gradually expands into both a harrowing war story and a decades-spanning meditation on morality. Keira Knightley, who grows thinner in each movie and is now approximately the width of a parenthesis, stars with James McAvoy (who played Idi Amin’s doctor in The Last King of Scotland) in a sumptously decorated and expertly photographed vision of the novel directed by Joe Wright, who also guided her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice a couple of years ago.

Wright’s Atonement is a fine effort that left me largely unmoved, possibly because the two greatest strengths of the book are absent. First is McEwan’s devastatingly precise and unnerving prose, which invariably makes you shiver at the terrible things that haven’t even happened yet and for which Wright has no real equivalent apart from a somewhat overused audio motif of a prewar typewriter’s keys slamming like ammunition being locked and loaded. Second is McEwan’s much talked-about pull-the-rug-out ending, which has little effect on you if you know it’s coming.

There’s a reason why surprise-twist stories rarely hold up well the second time around: You lose interest in the characters as people because you begin to see them as mere tools of the plot.

Your reaction to the film version of Atonement, which opens December 7, may depend on whether you can be shocked twice by the same revelation.

Ian McEwan’s superlative 2001 novel starts with a fusty Victorian framework — a country house, an upstairs-downstairs flirtation and a mislaid letter — that McEwan soon charges with eroticism. The tale gradually expands into both a harrowing war story and a decades-spanning meditation on morality. Keira Knightley, who grows thinner in each movie and is now approximately the width of a parenthesis, stars with James McAvoy (who played Idi Amin’s doctor in The Last King of Scotland) in a sumptously decorated and expertly photographed vision of the novel directed by Joe Wright, who also guided her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice a couple of years ago.

Wright’s Atonement is a fine effort that left me largely unmoved, possibly because the two greatest strengths of the book are absent. First is McEwan’s devastatingly precise and unnerving prose, which invariably makes you shiver at the terrible things that haven’t even happened yet and for which Wright has no real equivalent apart from a somewhat overused audio motif of a prewar typewriter’s keys slamming like ammunition being locked and loaded. Second is McEwan’s much talked-about pull-the-rug-out ending, which has little effect on you if you know it’s coming.

There’s a reason why surprise-twist stories rarely hold up well the second time around: You lose interest in the characters as people because you begin to see them as mere tools of the plot.

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I’m Not There—Until They Hand Out Oscars

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

Midway through I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’s soon-to-open film fantasia in which Bob Dylan is played by six different actors to signify different phases in the life of the Bard of Hibbing, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett pops up—and as was the case with her appearance as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator, Blanchett makes it immediately clear that this is an Oscar™ role.

Though Blanchett is strenuously coiffed and made up to look like Dylan, with a frizzy wig and Ray-Bans and loose-fitting shirts, never for a moment do you forget that this is Cate Blanchett Acting The Hell Out Of This Role. The clatter of Blanchett’s acting drowns out everything around her.

Within the cubist style of the movie, it isn’t particularly surprising to see a woman play Dylan—he’s also played here by a black kid calling himself “Woody Guthrie.” To have a black kid portray the larval Dylan makes a kind of sense, since, as a troubadour in training, young Robert Zimmerman cooked up a Guthrie-like legend for himself to hide his shame over his white middle-classness while singing about Blind Willie McTell. But there is nothing feminine about Dylan in this movie.

And yet, Blanchett’s wisp of a figure and porcelain cheekbones make it impossible to forget this is a drag performance. In a scene in which her Dylan chases an Edie Sedgwick-like object of obsession around a park, she doesn’t seem remotely masculine. She gives off no sexual hunger, no sense of need. In the end, all Blanchett ever needs in any film is our rapt attention.

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Bookshelf

• Otto Preminger? Who he? If you’re a paid-up member of the most extreme wing of the auteur theory of film criticism, which holds that directors are the golden gods of Hollywood and everyone else is chopped liver, you’re probably already bristling. Preminger is a certified darling of the auteurists, though cooler heads long ago dismissed him as a cost-conscious middlebrow with a Viennese accent whose continental demeanor and I-am-a-genius tantrums were sucker bait for impressionable rubes. Even his brother agreed. When Foster Hirsch approached Ingo Preminger about writing a biography of his more famous sibling, he got a thoroughly sensible answer: “I can see eight, nine, ten books about Bergman or Fellini, but a book about Otto? He was a very good producer and he fought important battles against censorship, but there was no great film!”

Nevertheless, Hirsch soldiered on, and the result is Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Knopf, 373 pp., $35), a readable book about an interesting man who made two good movies, Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, and two or three others that are still worth watching. If you think that’s sufficient cinematic achievement to justify a full-length biography, rest assured that this one will hold your attention, for Preminger’s story is fascinating from start to finish. A Polish Jew who reinvented himself as an echt-Viennese stage director, he relocated to Hollywood by way of Broadway and embarked on a career that brought him fame, fortune and a fair number of admiring reviews. A bald-headed tyrant whose larger-than-life personality made him the stuff of countless anecdotes, Preminger worked with everybody from Laurette Taylor to John Wayne, had affairs with Gypsy Rose Lee and Dorothy Dandridge, and played a half-dozen big-screen Nazis on the side, the best-remembered of whom is the sardonic commandant of Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17: “With Christmas coming on, I have a special treat for you. I’ll have you all deloused for the holidays.”

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• Otto Preminger? Who he? If you’re a paid-up member of the most extreme wing of the auteur theory of film criticism, which holds that directors are the golden gods of Hollywood and everyone else is chopped liver, you’re probably already bristling. Preminger is a certified darling of the auteurists, though cooler heads long ago dismissed him as a cost-conscious middlebrow with a Viennese accent whose continental demeanor and I-am-a-genius tantrums were sucker bait for impressionable rubes. Even his brother agreed. When Foster Hirsch approached Ingo Preminger about writing a biography of his more famous sibling, he got a thoroughly sensible answer: “I can see eight, nine, ten books about Bergman or Fellini, but a book about Otto? He was a very good producer and he fought important battles against censorship, but there was no great film!”

Nevertheless, Hirsch soldiered on, and the result is Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Knopf, 373 pp., $35), a readable book about an interesting man who made two good movies, Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, and two or three others that are still worth watching. If you think that’s sufficient cinematic achievement to justify a full-length biography, rest assured that this one will hold your attention, for Preminger’s story is fascinating from start to finish. A Polish Jew who reinvented himself as an echt-Viennese stage director, he relocated to Hollywood by way of Broadway and embarked on a career that brought him fame, fortune and a fair number of admiring reviews. A bald-headed tyrant whose larger-than-life personality made him the stuff of countless anecdotes, Preminger worked with everybody from Laurette Taylor to John Wayne, had affairs with Gypsy Rose Lee and Dorothy Dandridge, and played a half-dozen big-screen Nazis on the side, the best-remembered of whom is the sardonic commandant of Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17: “With Christmas coming on, I have a special treat for you. I’ll have you all deloused for the holidays.”

In between these well-told tales, Hirsch does all he can to persuade us that the director of Forever Amber, The Moon Is Blue, and River of No Return was something more than a highly paid hack. Not only does he call the embarrassingly elephantine Advise and Consent “the most intelligent American film about American politics…made by a maestro at the height of his command of the language of film,” but he even finds it in his forgiving heart to describe Skidoo, one of the half-dozen worst big-budget movies ever made, as “this infamous, endearing flop.” Far more telling, though, is Hirsch’s unintentionally devastating account of Preminger’s parallel career as a stage director in Austria and America, which leaves no possible doubt of his fundamental artistic unseriousness (the only plays of any importance that he directed in his 42 years in the theater were The Front Page and Johann Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich machen).

The truth was that Preminger cared only for commercial success, and was willing to make any compromise necessary in order to get it. Whenever he took on “serious” subject matter, he invariably watered it down so as to make it palatable to the masses, adding just enough shock value to épater le bourgeois. (It was Preminger who introduced the word “virgin” to the silver screen in The Moon Is Blue, showed Frank Sinatra shooting up in The Man with the Golden Arm, and filmed the inside of a gay bar in Advise and Consent.) Only twice did he adapt significant stage plays, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and both films, predictably enough, were artistic and commercial failures.

The rest was melodrama—except for Laura, the slickest and most elegant film noir ever made, and Anatomy of a Murder, a startlingly tough-minded courtroom drama in which Preminger drew on his youthful experience as a Viennese law student to show how lawyers approach the vexing problem of defending clients whose innocence they doubt. These two films are more than worth remembering, and Hirsch does well by them (though he seems curiously unaware that Alexander Woollcott was the real-life model for Waldo Lydecker, the epicene journalist-radio personality who narrates Laura).

Yet two films do not an oeuvre make, and I have a feeling that Foster Hirsch, for all his enthusiasm, suspects as much. At book’s end, he describes Otto Preminger as “a supremely fluent metteur-en-scène who made thoughtful, challenging films on a broad range of subjects that continue to matter.” Judicious appraisal—or damning with faint praise? You be the judge.

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Al Gore’s Hypothetical Candidacy

Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

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Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

But this will be a short-lived story. It is a safe bet that buyer’s remorse over Barack Obama will set in by this fall as E.J. Dionne, Arianna Huffington, and Jonathan Alter complain about his failings. (In fact, Joe Klein has already started.)

In the meantime, these early grenades tossed in Hillary’s direction are, I would argue, ultimately good for her candidacy. A fractious, heated primary, with Obama, Edwards, and possibly Gore lining up to her Left allows her to pursue a centrist triangulation strategy that makes her seem measured, reasonable, and non-ideological. Were Hillary to be the party’s runaway favorite this early on, we would be reading nothing but stories about her shady dealings with cattle futures and the Rose law firm. Instead, we will be reading more about how this really ought to be Al Gore’s time.

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