Thursday, December 31, 2009

FILM: Nine

For New Years Eve, we caught Nine, which is a bunch of musical numbers set into a parodic parade of clichés about Italian men and Italian film. While I've never seen the original Fellini films that inspired the Broadway musical on which this film is based, Fellini is so seminal I feel as though I have. Who isn't familiar with the idea of the Italian man who adores his mother and loves his wife while loving other women on the side too, without seeing any problem with that, because, well, women are just so beautiful? I don't know how much of this actually was Fellini versus how much he invented his film persona, and how much La Dolce Vita inspired versus reflected a whole generation of Italian men. But it's that idea that is played with throughout this film, as the filmmaker-within-the-film, Guido Contini, wanders (both in his imagination and in real life) from one woman to another who has been significant in his life, each with their own musical number. At first, the film might seem to be idolizing Contini's status as a filmmaker of national heroic status, and excusing his treatment of the women in his life, but it soon becomes clear that Contini is a charicature of his own self-image, and as various minor characters gently impugn him, he starts to become aware of his own emptiness. Of course, it doesn't fully come clear to him until his wife leaves him. Who'd have thought that this Fellini-inspired film would turn out to be a subtle morality tale, quietly urging the superiority of conventional morals over La Dolce Vita. But that's all a soft-pedaled undercurrent, in what is otherwise a scaffolding of excuse for a series of musical numbers with great visual impact performed by a range of stars including Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Fergie, Marion Cotillard, Judi Densch, and Sophia Loren. The parodies are visual as well as thematic, with fun cliché shots of women in billowing dresses, Italian fountains, charming Italian moonlit streets, and it's a delight to watch as well as listen to all the numbers. There's also amusing homage to the cliché relationship of Italians to their Roman Catholic church, revering it while being faithless, kind of the same way they relate to their wives. Guido, at one point, goes to a bishop for guidance, and asks the bishop if he believes in God. At another point, a priest confesses that even though Contini's films are officially banned by the church as immoral, they all love them. The early ones, anyway. Contini's fans are always telling poor Guido how much they loved his early works. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a brilliant perfomance as Guido, showing once again how he just completely transforms himself into his characters. And the constellation of female co-stars surrounding him are all luminous. This parade of parody and numbers was a diverting way to welcome the new year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

FILM: A Single Man

While everyone has been raving about the amazingly beautiful computer graphics of Avatar, we decided instead to see a smaller film of exquisite visual beauty that didn't require 3D glasses to appreciate. A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford's debut as a film director, is an intensely subjective and impressionistic film about a man contemplating suicide after the loss of his lover. The Christopher Isherwood novel that it was adapted from would not seem to lend itself easily to film, since nearly all of the action is internal. Externally, everything takes place in one apparently ordinary day: a man goes to work, teaches a class, goes to the bank, and has dinner with a friend. Internally, the man has all sorts of memories triggered, fits of imagination, and other wanderings of the mind as he contemplates his planned last day on earth. Tom Ford's designer eye vividly "makes it work", employing techniques, like extreme close-ups and enhanced sounds, more typical of music videos and perfume commercials, creating a sumptuously cinematic expression of this unlikely source material. The internality begins from the opening scene, of a man suspended or barely moving under water, which we soon learn is the main character's feeling of heartbreak and loss as sinking and drowning. I don't think I've seen as subjective a film since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. When the man's attention is focused somewhere, the camera zooms in on it, and when the man's mind wanders, we follow it. The flashbacks give us enough brushstrokes to sketch the back story, but they are not lengthy excuses to shovel in some plot, they are very organic, the actual memories of the man on that day. They are very natural, the way that when you've lost someone, certain objects or experiences will prompt a memory of them. There's a very touching scene when he sees a dog in a car that is the same breed of dog that he and his lover had shared. He flashes back to a brief memory of his lover telling him about something funny the dog had done, while in the present moment trying not to get too emotional with this stranger's dog. Colin Firth is masterful in his performance as George, the bereaved English professor, showing outward British restraint while struggling with strong emotions inside, a brilliantly nuanced veneer of control with tears dangerously close to the surface. Julianne Moore also gives a great turn as his longtime friend and unrequited lover, and Nicholas Hoult is both haunting and tenderly charming in his role as a student who's attracted to George. But the real star here is the designer/director, who had a brilliant and beautiful vision for realizing this film, and whom, I suspect, executed it with the same meticulous attention to detail as seen in the main character, who neatly lays out the clothes he wants to be buried in and leaves a note instructing which knot should be used to tie his tie. Ford's visual symphony of subjectivity is enhanced by its sumptuous immersion in its place and time: Santa Monica, 1962. The property master for this film must have had quite a time finding all the period phones, clocks, hi-fis, cigarettes, and even the bottle of particular single malt whisky that George drank (North Port, which hasn't been made since 1983). Santa Monica 1962 was of course Isherwood's world, and we both noted that Don Bachardy, Isherwood's lifelong lover, was listed as a consultant in the credits. There were certainly glimmers of their real life in the story, and in the texture of this film, which I think Isherwood would have appreciated. An impressionistic film about suicide could easily veer into the maudlin, but Ford avoids that trap. Instead, the film inspires reflection on life with a clarity that reminded me of a Hemingway novel. Isherwood's story is thoughtful without being depressing, and Ford's carefully crafted view inside the main character's mind, combined with George's reserved personality, provides the right amount of detachment to keep it poignant but not ponderous, and ultimately a film of great beauty.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

FILM: Sherlock Holmes

I thoroughly enjoyed the new Sherlock Holmes movie, which was a bit like a Victorian version of Indiana Jones. Some folks may sniff that this Holmes, who is as physically action-packed as James Bond, is not being true to the "real" Sherlock Holmes, but those folks are basing their vision of the deerstalker-capped cerebral detective on all the old films and not so much on the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. I found Robert Downey Jr.'s realization of the character to be as genuine as it was mold-breaking. His portrayal of Holmes as a robust fighter, a savant with encyclopedic knowledge but sometimes thick social skills, master of disguise and diversion, and an occasionally reckless experimenter with all sorts of chemistry (including drugs), was all spot-on. And Jude Law made a great Doctor Watson, loyal friend, roommate, and partner in crime-fighting. This Watson was a bit smarter than the one in the books, but I think it made him more interesting, and the script's subplot of Watson becoming engaged to be married and moving out added an intriguing dimension to the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The main storyline was smartly conceived and action-packed, keeping you wondering how Holmes will crack this case. Some clues are presented along the way, but as with the original stories, while it's possible to guess at the denouement, you're never given enough to figure it all out yourself, you're only given enough to see how it all fits once the solution is presented. The plot is complicated by having a variety of players in addition to the main villain, including a cameo Professor Moriarty, and Holmes' great love and nemesis Irene Adler, smartly played by Rachel McAdams. Moriarty's goals are a lingering question until the end, and Irene Adler's motives and allegiances are intentionally and intriguingly ambiguous. The film nicely conveys the gritty feel of an industrial age late Victorian London, capturing the time and place. And director Guy Ritchie gives some tantalizing flashes of insight into Holmes' methods through "flash inwards", moments when the film jumps inside Holmes' head, and we see some past action that he has surmised from a clue, or we see some imminent action that he's anticipating. It's a creative cinematic technique that serves this film well. This was as much fun and almost as much action as a James Bond film. It leaves well-placed for a sequel if it does well, and that would be fine by me.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Remembering Denny: Now Cracks a Noble Heart

Good friends stand out in our best memories, having shared our happiest moments. Our best friends are those who were also there in less happy times, who stood by us with a strong shoulder when we needed support. But the greatest friends are those who planted seeds inside us, causing us to grow and blossom in new directions, not only enriching the quality of our lives, but altering their course. We are lucky who know even one or two such great friends in a lifetime, and I was so lucky to have known Dennis. He was my gay "big brother", my partner in the great Shakespeare quest, fellow traveler across three continents, my opera and classical music mentor, enthusiast of fine dining and cooking, fellow cyclist and snowboarder, rock solid shoulder to cry on when needed, the greatest friend and a huge part of who I am today.

I first met Dennis on a sunny Sunday morning, Jan 6, 1991. He was the Vice President and Ride Coordinator for Different Spokes, a gay and lesbian bicycling club, and he was leading a 30-mile bike ride that day, the first of a series designed to get us in shape for the Solvang Century, a 100-mile ride in March. Denny's confidence and encouragement, not to mention his playful charm and dazzing smile, motivated me not only to do the whole series of rides, but to plunge into the bike club in a big way, eventually becoming an officer myself.

As we got to know each other, we quickly learned we had much more in common than cycling. I was enthralled by his wide-ranging and passionate interests, from cooking to music, from art to film to history. How often do you meet a friend who, when you say "Hey, they're doing an authentic staging of an ancient Greek tragedy outdoors at the Getty Villa", he says "Awesome! Let's go!". He was a consumate companion for a Shakespeare history play, because he knew his English history cold, and could fill me in on all the backstory of who's allied with whom because this one's grandfather got cheated by that one's uncle in the royal succession. And Denny's knowledge of music was vast and intense. I thought I knew classical music, but his contagious passion blew my mind open to whole new vistas, from opera to medieval chant, from Monteverdi to Shostakovich (not to mention jazz crooners and dance club mixes).

I learned so much from Dennis, and even when I was able to teach him new things, he would engage voraciously and take them to a whole new level. I taught him to snowboard, but he was the one who lead us into the snowboard park when Bear Mountain first put one in, and soon the two of us were hurtling ourselves off of ramps and into the air, alongside kids half our age. I took Dennis to his first Shakespeare play, but he was the one who came up with the idea of the quest. Standing on the steps of Royce Hall after we'd seen our second Shakespeare play, exhiliarated by the language, the drama, and the galvanic performance, I said, "So, you're really liking Shakespeare? We should see some more." Denny gave me an enthusiastic look, and said "Let's see them all! How many do you think there are? 20? 50? I'll find out. Let's make it a mission, a life quest!" So for the 14 years that followed, we sought out Shakespeare in theatres large and small around town, and even made trips to San Diego, Oregon, and New York to find the more obscure plays, until a few years ago when we made our triumphal pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to complete the quest.

Denny had a genius for making things extraordinary. Anyone who's been to the Hollywood Bowl with him knows this. The pre-Bowl picnic was always an extravagant affair, and while lots of people bring picnics to the Bowl, the other picnickers would look on in awe as the tablecloth, the dinner service, the stemware, flowers, wine, and exquisite cuisine were spread out. And we had a number of decadent trips up to San Francisco to see the opera and dine at great restaurants. San Francisco is a dressier opera crowd than LA, so we often went up in black tie and tuxedos, which suited the classic beaux arts beauty of the SF Opera house. I remember one time we were flying up for a Friday night performance, and we were going to have to go straight to the opera from the airport, so we flew in our tuxes, and Denny was going to bring something to eat on the way up. I thought we'd just have sandwiches or something, but once we'd boarded (and this was before 9/11 of course), Denny pulls out his carry-on bag and, to the amazement of the flight attendants and surrounding passengers, starts unpacking cheese and pâté and caviar and wine. "Well, you didn't think we were going to eat peanuts, did you?"

With Denny, even the ordinary could be extraordinary. I remember going over to his place one night for a "casual" dinner before I knew him really well. I thought maybe pasta or something. But I show up, and he's got prosciutto-wrapped melon for us to munch on, while I watch him pressing fresh sage leaves into veal medallions for saltimbocca, which he then flipped in the sautée pan with his signature flourish. Another casual evening, we had seen an afternoon movie in Westwood and were driving back to his place, when he says let's go catch the sunset at the beach. So we pull down to Santa Monica Beach, and watch what turned out to be one of the most spectacular sunsets either of us had ever seen, with red and orange and pink and gold, and I swear there was even a bit of green patina in it. And while we're sitting in his car, awestruck by this visual symphony, the most perfectly glorious music is playing, what sounds like choirs of angels singing in the perfect musical expression of this extraordinary sunset. After the sun went down, and we're driving back, I asked him "What was that music?" "Oh, you like it? That's John Rutter's Requiem. He writes some beautiful sacred choral music." So, not only an amazing sunset, but another expansion of my musical education. Just a casual Sunday with Dennis.

When we first met, I was just starting to venture out as a gay man, yet to have my first boyfriend, having no local gay friends, and making my first tentative forays into the gay community. As Dennis and I became friends, he took me under his wing like a gay "big brother", and held my hand as he introduced me to the world of West Hollywood, dance clubs, and circuit parties. I was intimidated by all the beautiful boys, never feeling like I belonged, but Denny was supremely self-confident and would plunge in anywhere. In a dance club, he immersed himself in the music, the lights, the freedom of motion, and the throbbing mass of bodies all moving to the same beat. His exhiliaration was contagious, and a bit of his confidence rubbed off on me when I was with him. Sometimes we'd dance together and other times we'd foray in independent directions. But like the great friend he was, he'd always give me a prod when I needed one -- "just go up to that guy!" -- and he'd just hang with me when I needed that. I felt secure knowing my loyal friend was always looking out for me.

Denny was fearless. Not just in dance clubs or on the ski slopes, but throughout his life. When we were in France, he confidently drove our car along the windy corniche above Monaco, with its dangerous corners and steep cliffs. "Uh, Denny, aren't you worried, isn't this about where Princess Grace went off the road?" "Yeah, I think so, this is great!" He wasn't intimidated by Paris at rush hour either, even when we had to plunge into the notorious Place d'Etoile, a free-for-all where twelve major streets come together. He just grinned with delight as we went around it several times. When we were in Australia, he held my hand while gently laughing at me as I faced my fear of heights, first when we climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, along cables and catwalks over rushing cars and the harbor hundreds of feet below, and later when we rapelled down an 80' waterfall where the only way down the canyon was to grab a rope and step backwards over the edge of the falls.

If I had to pick a single photo to represent our 18+ years of friendship, I know the one. It is Denny meeting me at the finish line of the AIDS Ride, pouring champagne over my head. I have just finished a 565-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, having raised over $3000 for AIDS care and services, a feat both physical and financial that a few years earlier I could not have imagined myself doing. I would not have ever done it without the seeds of change planted in my life by Denny -- the motivation to participate actively in the bike club, the inspiration for leadership in community organizations, and most of all the encouragement for reaching beyond my limits. So there he was, my faithful friend, cheering me on across the finish line, and playfully greeting me with a bottle of champagne, shaken up and sprayed all over me. I love his puckish grin in that photo, presiding over this moment of accomplishment, the fruition of seeds he planted, pouring champagne on my head, and pouring his benediction on my life.

Early on, I knew that Denny was a keeper. We'd talk sometimes about sitting together on the porch of some old folks home, looking back on a lifetime of friendship and adventure. We knew that we would be friends our whole lifetimes. I just thought it would be longer. We must remind ourselves, a life should be measured not by its length but by its depth. Every play we saw together, every castle explored, every bike ride through oak-studded California canyons, every ski run riding our boards like we were flying and dancing on the snow, every night spent dancing till dawn, every elaborate meal, and every extraordinary sunset with Dennis was a gift and a treasure. Dennis lived. He lived more life in his 54 years than many live in a much longer span.

They say you should end these things with a quote, and I would be remiss if I didn't read some Shakespeare. Denny read Shakespeare at my wedding, so I should read some Shakespeare here. In the final act of Hamlet, the prince is finally resolved to face his fate, and his loyal friend Horatio is giving him one last chance to change his mind. You don't have to face this, Horatio tells Hamlet, you can duck out the back, and I'll cover for you. But Hamlet says:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?
So off Hamlet goes to meet his fate. A few flowery lines, a sword fight, and a bit of poison later, Hamlet, along with several others, are dying or dead. Hamlet asks his faithful friend to live on to tell his story, and then dies at his feet. Horatio says:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

STAGE: Parade

At the enthusiastic recommendation of neighbors, we decided to check out Parade at the Mark Taper. While the notion of a musical about a lynching doesn't sound very auspicious, it turns out to be surprisingly excellent theatre with some beautiful numbers in it. The story is lifted fairly intact from an actual historical incident in 1913 Atlanta, the drummed-up conviction of Leo Frank, a Jewish New Yorker factory boss, for the murder of a young teenage girl. The case proved to be a lightning rod for festering southern resentment of northern interference, bubbling out in vicious xenophobia. While the courtroom drama of a media-whipped, rumor-driven frame-up eventually unraveling provides the center of the story, much of the beauty of the musical comes from the development of the relationship between Leo Frank and his wife after he is imprisoned, when she proves her real mettle and he comes to realize how much he's taken his wife for granted. There are many memorable numbers: a charming early duet showing the young girl playfully holding a young suitor at bay ("The Picture Show"), a powerful ensemble number at her burial ("It Don't Make Sense"), the two testimonies of the dubious main witness ("That's What He Said"), and Leo and Lucille's "picnic" in his prison cell ("All the Wasted Time"). The cast was strong all around, lead by T.R. Knight as Leo Frank (who totally became his character and made me forget Gray's Anatomy for the evening) and Lara Pulver showing understated strength as his wife, and featuring a number of stage veterans -- Michael Berresse, Davis Gaines, Charlotte d'Amboise, David St. Louis, Christian Hoff, P.J. Griffith -- all masterfully handling multiple roles, and with young newcomers Curt Hansen and Rose Sezniak performing admirably with this strong cast. The choreography and stagecraft are wonderful, beautifully capturing the time, place, and spirit of the show. The parade of coached witnesses, and the enactment of some of the testimony and flashbacks were memorably visualized. The creative use of the simple set, augmented by a few furniture props and sliding panels in the stage floor, did a remarkable job of vividly conjuring a home, a courtroom, a street, a prison cell, a ballroom, a factory office, and a city street. This remarkable piece of theatre only ran for a couple of months when it opened on Broadway in 1998, but it also garnered a couple of Tony awards, and has since gained attention in revival, and last night, we could certainly see why.

Monday, September 28, 2009

STAGE: August: Osage County

August: Osage County, the Tony-award winning best play of 2008, is here at the Ahmanson now. Though the performance runs three and a half hours (with two intermissions), the lively play kept us all engrossed to the end. Tracy Letts' story of a family gathering in response to the patriarch's disappearance packs all the drama and intensity of an Albee play, but leavened with a bit more humor, and with the cast and complexity of a telenovela. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Six Feet Under, if you will. Like Who's Afraid, it touches on themes of disappointment of not living up to one's full academic potential, but that's only a bit of background texture to the soap opera of addiction, suicide, incest, infidelity, and pedophilia. The Fisher family of Six Feet Under has got nothing on the Weston family of Osage County when it comes to putting the "fun" in dysfunctional family. Amidst all of the family secrets that get revealed, the play thoughtfully probes the relationships between children and parents, between sisters, and between spouses. An all-around strong cast was lead by Estelle Parsons in a memorable performance as the pill-popping matriarch (and the 82-year-old actress is amazingly fit, running up and down the stairs often in the play). The whole ensemble worked great magic together, and many moments in the play benefited from their impeccable comic and dramatic timing. The entire play takes place on a single set, a doll-house-style cut-away three-story home, with the only change of scene being the shift of light from one room to another. It suits perfectly, giving the story just enough space to unfold, while keeping the intensity of a single set (the play never steps out to get some air, so to speak). There's a bit of porch, allowing characters to enter and exit the family house, and have a few moments outside, but the house totally dominates the stage and underscores the fixedness of the central character, who is the only family member never to leave the house throughout the play. Amidst this train-wreck of a family, there are some good laughs, powerful drama, and great humanity.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

STAGE: Phèdre

Sometimes I am incredibly lucky, and last night was one of those times. I had heard about the (British) National Theatre's production of Racine's Phèdre, lead by Dame Helen Mirren, which was causing sensations in London, and was coming to the US for twelve performances only, in Washington DC. I figured that would be one of those great events I'd just have to hear about from others. But then I was in Washington for a business trip this week, discovered it was the same week Phedre was in town, and thanks to CraigsList and some help from a good friend, I was able to score a ticket. I paid a premium, but it was so worth it. The play is a classic tragedy, coming from the ancient Greek drama Hippolytus by Euripides, adapted by the 17th century French master playwright Racine, and translated into modern English by poet Ted Hughes. The simple but beautiful set for this production echoes that pedigree. Racine's version all takes place in a single setting, in the palace of Troezen, with one side open to the sky, allowing his characters to literally move in and out of the light. Director Nicholas Hytner remains true to that concept, realizing the palace as a floor and ceiling of travertine, with a large hunk of rough travertine covering an exit, and a brilliant blue sky off to the right. To an Angeleno, the giant travertine tiles immediately conjure the Getty Center, an allusion which hits the perfect note of a modern reflection of ancient Greece. The tragedy is raw by modern standards, a roller-coaster of pity and horror, unleavened by lighter moments, driving inexorably to its horrible end. Histrionic speeches vividly express passion and anguish along the way. It's not a modern mode, but the Hughes translation in Hytner's hands felt Shakespearean, with hints of Edward Albee. And the remarkable cast brings it home. Helen Mirren's Phèdre exposes palpable passion and anguish (Phèdre is hopelessly in love with her stepson, knows how horrible that is, and struggles to avert it), verging on madness and suicide, her voice modulating loud and soft, high and low, expressing the waves of emotion in her character. And at times she speaks volumes just with a slight movement of her body. When she learns that Hippolytus loves another woman, a tightening of her body and a turn of her head vividly convey to the audience the emotional bullet she's just received, while revealing nothing to her husband. Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus captures the scope of that noble tortured character, forswearing love but then falling in love with the exiled daughter of his father's enemy. When fatally wronged by his father, he refuses to vindicate himself in order to spare his father the even-worse truth. Hippolytus keeps much bottled up, but Cooper's excellent portrayal succeeds in conveying the emotions within the reserved exterior, and the cost of maintaining that reserve. Other standout performances included John Shrapnel as Theramene, old counselor to Hippolytus, who rises to great Shakespearean proportions in the climax when he recounts the death of Hippolytus; and Ruth Negga as Aricia, the noble princess who drags in the remains of Hippolytus in the end (like Stevie in the third act of Albee's The Goat). The performance was breathtaking from start to horrifying finish.

As the play unfolded, I realized that I had seen a performance of the original Euripides tragedy that it was based on (a few years ago at the newly reopened Getty Villa). It hadn't hit me right away, as Racine's play is called Phèdre, while Euripides' play is called Hippolytus. But that just begins to tell the ways in which Racine shifted the focus and changed the play. The story is nearly the same in its outline, but in Euripides, Hippolytus is the tragic hero, cursed by the goddess Aphrodite because he spurns her in favor of Artemis, while Phaedra is an innocent pawn of the goddess, who kills herself before acting on her feelings. Racine turns the focus of the play on Phèdre, making her more culpable (though influenced by her Machiavellian nurse), and making Hippolytus more noble, and also adding the new wrinkle of Aricia, giving Hippolytus a forbidden love of his own. In Euripides, the goddesses actually appear in the play, and actively intervene in events, while in Racine, the gods are off-stage and the humans are undone by their own passions and flaws. A great drama stands the test of time, carrying its truth even as it is reinterpreted by different generations. In some ways, this play seems ancient, but at the same time, we read its echoes in recent headlines. Makes me wonder whether Racine should be my next quest. And I'll certainly keep an eye out for other National Theatre productions. Theatre of this caliber is worth going to lengths to see. (And apparently there's a new venture afoot at National Theatre to do live broadcasts of some of their productions to cinemas around the world. Check out NT Live.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

FILM: My One And Only

In the title sequence of My One And Only, vintage 1950 postcards from Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles are sequenced, artfully combined with period photos and symbols of those places, set to vintage music, all foreshadowing the charming period-piece road-trip movie that is to come. A beautiful sky-blue Cadillac Eldorado convertible is the vehicle for the cross-country trip, but the route is more a journey of self-discovery than just following Highway 66. Renee Zellweger is perfect as Anne Devereaux, a middle-aged but still beautiful southern belle who walks out on her womanizing band-leader husband (Kevin Bacon), taking her two sons with her, along with a handful of cash, and the fierce determination that she will find a better husband (and father for the boys). She meets a series of former beaus and prospective second husbands in a series of cities, but she also meets setback after setback, challenging her conviction that "things will always work out in the end". Nonetheless, she keeps her head high, and things do work out, though not in the way that she had expected. (Of course, another of Anne's aphorisms is that "a lady should never do what is expected.") Kevin Bacon, whom we see in the beginning, and who pops up at various other points, is great in his part as the charming but irresponsible ex-husband, and many of Anne's subsequent suitors are a parade of nicely done small roles by Steven Weber, Chris Noth, and Eric McCormack. Nick Stahl oozes James Dean / early Brando-esque charm in a bit as her quietly smoldering neighbor in Pittsburgh. But the other real star of the show is Logan Lerman, who plays her older son George, a young would-be writer whose favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, probably because he's strongly relating to Holden Caulfield's teenage angst. Lerman, whose character also narrates the film, gives an amazing performance of George's worldly savvy (some of it modeled on his father) and teenage pretend-self-confidence with self-searching vulnerability peeking through the cracks. In the beginning, George thinks his mother is silly, and he wants to go back to New York and his father. But as they journey together, he discovers less to admire about his father and eventually more to admire about his mother. It's a touching, thoughtful, and charming film, and like the Cadillac they drive, a classic American beauty to behold.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

BOOKS: The Chosen

This past couple weeks, I've really enjoyed listening to The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. It's one of those classic books that I thought I should catch up on, especially after Potok's works kept popping up in various conversations lately. (The most surprising and random was last Sunday, when I asked at family dinner if anyone had read any Potok. Turns out my mother was also in the middle of The Chosen, having picked it up on a sale table at the bookstore, not knowing anything about it.) The story follows an unlikely friendship between two boys in 1940's Brooklyn through high school and college. Though they live just a few blocks apart, Danny, a Hasidic orthodox Jew (black caftan, beard, earlocks), and Reuven, a modern orthodox Jew, had never crossed paths until Danny nearly took out Reuven's eye in a baseball game. I enjoyed learning much about Hasidic Judaism that I didn't know, their history, their distinctive practices (like dynastic leaders), as it unfolded in the two boys getting to know each other, and their distinct experiences of their "common" faith. The backdrop of the story exposed the events of World War II and the founding of Israel, which while well known events, was made fresh in the way these people experienced it at the moment. The story also contemplated father-son relationships, contrasting the close relationship Reuven had with his father (a teacher and later a Zionist activist), versus Danny's silent relationship with his father (the tzadik of his community, a position to be inherited by Danny). The narrator, Jonathan Davis, did a great job reading this book, properly pronouncing all the Hebrew and Yiddish words, and all with a good Longg Island accent. His voicing was given wing, I think, by Potok's great ear for natural dialog with these characters. An opening epigram in the book really stayed with me: a description of how a trout fights when it is hooked, and how the other trout swimming by see its struggle but don't understand it because they can't see the hook and the line. The book is a real lesson in empathy and compassion, as well as Jewish history.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

FILM: Julie & Julia

What a delightful, utterly charming film we enjoyed in Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep delivers another amazing tour de force in portraying Julia Child, a daunting task not only because Julia is so well known, but because she is so distinctive in her voice and mannerisms that it's got to be fiendishly difficult to portray her without falling into parody. But Streep, under Nora Ephron's direction, does an amazing job. As my mother said, Streep was more Julia Child than Julia Child. (The cinematographer also gets props for making the 5'6" Streep look as grande as the 6'2" Child.) But while the film was all about Julia, it was not all about Meryl, and she was surrounded by an awesome cast. Stanley Tucci was endearing as her husband Paul Child, and Amy Adams was perfect for Julie, the main character of the other story. As the trailer tells us, Julie & Julia is based on two true stories, and it is the clever interposing of these two stories, five decades and an ocean apart, that elevates the film from just a great biography. The film moves back and forth between Julia, in 1950s Paris, discovering her love of French cooking and her aim to write a cookbook, and Julie, a sympathetic young woman feeling frustrated in her job, cramped in her Queens apartment, and left behind by her more successful friends, who undertakes a project to cook her way through the entire Julia Child cookbook in year, and to blog about it. It was a delight to see her accomplishments and her setbacks as she gained confidence through her ambitious task. There were times when her experiments got a bit out of control, and she got a bit obsessed with her blog, and she's lucky she had such a supportive husband. Hmm, that last sentence could hit a bit close to home… I could relate a bit too closely to how crushed she felt watching her husband douse with salt the boeuf bourguignon she had slaved over. But I could also relate to the joy she found in cooking, and could admire her spirit in going beyond her comfort zone (like tackling the lobster and the formidable deboning of the duck). Meanwhile, getting to know Julia was absolutely inspirational. While I naturally admired her culinary talent, what was revelatory was learning about her indomitable personality, her pluck for always moving forward cheerfully despite adversity, and her wonderful relationship with her loving husband. We've seen a number of romance flicks this summer, but I think Julia and Paul may be the best romance of the summer. I left this film uplifted on so many counts: the inspirational lives, the rapturous cuisine, the visual valentine to Paris in the 1950s. Among other things, I want to run out and buy her cookbook and try out some of those recipes. But I also plan to read Julia's autobiography. The recipe I left most inspired to try was her recipe for joie de vivre.

UPDATE 8/22/09: I've heard from a number of people who liked Julia and hated Julie, such as this review in Gourmet, by someone who knew Julia personally. It's worth reading the comments as well as the review itself. A number of folks there come to Julie Powell's defense. I don't think Julie was trying to be a new Julia. She was trying to find some meaning in a grim life by taking on an extraordinary challenge (both the cooking and the blogging). I came away from the film with a much-renewed admiration for Julia, but I laughed when she talked about making French cooking accessible for the "servantless American", and thought to myself, yeah, the servantless jobless American who has time to spend hours in the kitchen. As someone who can very keenly relate to the challenge of trying to cook good food after coming home from a full day's work, as well as the challenge of trying to write a blog every single day, I think Julie Powell is undeservedly unappreciated by this reviewer.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

FILM: The Ugly Truth

And to think that Katherine Heigl once complained that the writers on Gray's Anatomy weren't giving her good enough material. We saw The Ugly Truth this weekend, and the ugly truth about this film is, while passably pleasant enough for summer fluff, it's cheesy, predictable, and derivative. The premise promised to be a sparky battle of the sexes, set against the conflict of quality versus ratings-driven TV news programming. So I'm expecting Broadcast News crossed with Adam's Rib. Katherine Heigl's character started out strong and serious like Holly Hunter, but she turned into a cartoon with a goofy happy dance the minute Eric Winter dropped his towel. (In retrospect, the eye candy may have been the high point of the film.) The story degenerated into a soapy romance with mostly cardboard characters whose one development you could see coming like Andersen's Pea Soup on Interstate 5, with the plot, such as it was, advanced by a series of puerile gags. The remote ear-piece thing? The spill in the lap? Cheesy and done before. And vibrating panties? Really? (And the result, such a cheap imitation of Meg Ryan's unforgettable salad in When Harry Met Sally.) The film was enjoyable, mostly due to the sheer force of charm from Heigl and Gerard Butler, who just might have been Hepburn and Tracy had they been given a much better script. Alas, this script was just a big dollop of Velveeta. Not for the lactose-intolerant.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

FILM: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On Thursday afternoon, I snuck out with a couple of colleagues for an "offsite" to see the latest Harry Potter episode. We all really enjoyed it. Of course any discussion of a Harry Potter movie centers around how faithful it was to the book. Personally, I hold no unrealistic expectations that they can render the book completely in the film version. There's just too much to fit, and I accept that things must be cut. I think they captured the essential elements: the Death Eaters and their reign of terror are on the rise, the kids are experiencing typical teenage romances, and Harry, along with Hermione and Ron, are left at the end with the huge task of finding the remaining horcruxes to kill you-know-who. I think they did a good job of surgically removing certain plot elements, like the parts about Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry, while keeping the overall story coherent and intact. Some choices in the end, however, were a bit puzzling. Could there not have been at least a bit of a fight? In the film, it seems a bit odd that the other teachers and students are nowhere to be seen, as the Death Eaters turn over a few chairs and then leave. And it was a bit odd for Harry to just quietly lurk and passively watch the final scene (in the book, he is petrified by Dumbledore, but the film omitted that). But even though the ending was anticlimactic, I think it was unavoidably so. That's just how this book ends. Unlike the previous books, where the kids break for summer, this time their future is filled with terror and uncertainty. Though the Death Eaters didn't seem to do much in the end, their triumph was that of the terrorist, a psychological blow, to put a Dark Mark in the sky over Hogwarts, eliminating the last "safe space" for the good guys. That's what this film is about is the onset of terror. The gist of this film was perfectly captured in a wordless moment where Mrs. Weasley watches with a mixture of grief and resolution as her house burns. The end of this film is just like the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie: it basically leaves off with things looking bleak, and the heroes contemplating the seemingly impossible task they must complete in order to save the world as we know it. The young actors continue to do a fine job in their roles, refining their chops as some roles get more complicated (especially Malfoy). And of course veteran oldsters (Rickman, Gambon, Smith, etc) are all brilliant. I think they did a fine job with this film, and I enjoyed it very much.

Just to add a couple personal idiosyncratic notes. First, a quibble. The Felix Felicis potion was supposed to be luminescent gold. Would that have been so hard to get right in the film? On the upside, I loved all the rugged Scottish Highlands scenery, which seemed more prominent in this film. That is magical countryside indeed.

BOOKS: The History of Love

What a quietly moving and thoroughly spell-binding novel Nicole Krauss has written in The History of Love. The first several chapters in, I thought the book was going to be some good character sketches, but without much of a plot. While I was enjoying the characters just being characters, I failed to notice until much later the fantastic subtle web of interconnection that had been woven around these characters, and had ensnared me to see it fully unfold. It's been said that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. The History of Love tells of a young writer who pours out his first, fleeting yet lifelong love into an unpublished manuscript, and how it touches the lives and loves of others across two translations, three continents, and seven decades. And of how choosing the wrong sentence might change the course of a lifetime. The book made me think of Love in the Time of Cholera, as both are epic paeans to a lifetime of love (mostly in the abstract), their pivotal characters carrying an enduring unrequited love for a girl who marries and spends her life with someone else. But where Florentino Ariza spends his life whoring around, Krauss' hero Leopold Gursky spends his life writing. Gursky thinks no one will read his pages, but he has no idea how far-reaching his impact will be. In the end, he touches the lives of others more profoundly and positively than Garcia-Marquez' hero. Of course one doesn't expect much of Gursky when we first meet him, as a cranky, eccentric old man. But as his story unfolds, I grew fond of him, crankiness and eccentricities and all. His story comes out interleaved with the coming of age story of a teen girl and her younger brother dealing with the loss of their father when they were very young, and the story of a Jewish refugee and writer in South America. And perhaps the story is even more about the girl than about Gursky. While the novel jumps from 1930s Poland to 1960s Chile to contemporary New York, I found the narrative flow surprisingly natural and not too hard to follow, especially as the latent threads running through the disparate stories begin to manifest. Krauss' intricate story is brought to life by her ear for voice and her vivid characters. By the end, I was rapt in its magic web.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

FILM: (500) Days of Summer

We mostly enjoyed (500) Days of Summer, a light quirky romantic comedy, or, as the narrator might insist, not a romantic comedy but a comedy about romance. The film plays with all sorts of conventions, including inverting the typical romcom formula with a hopelessly romantic boy and a free-spirited, commitment-phobic girl, and a timeline that chronicles their year-and-a-half long relationship starting at day (382) and bouncing back to day (10) and forward again to (127) and back to day (2), or something like that. The story-telling is entirely subjective from the hopelessly romantic boy's point of view, and the film plays with the subjectivity, free-flowing from straightforward life scenes to voiceovers, split-screens (expectations vs. reality), classic movie parodies and a break-out musical number (not counting the karaoke). The film is also a visual valentine to downtown Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of our hopeless romantic (who's a frustrated architect working at a greeting card company) as he shares his urban appreciation with the object of his amorous attention. The film thrives on the utterly charming performances of its stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, the great visuals, and the dynamic non-linear unfolding of the relationship. I did mostly enjoy it, even though I did feel the ending felt a bit flat. Summer was such a fresh and intriguing character, and it just felt like she collapsed from 3D to 2D at the end, inexplicably becoming quite conventional. In retrospect, I appreciate that it's actually quite realistic and understandable given the strong subjectivity of the story being from his point of view. A curveball from his point of view might be a straight line from her point of view, but all we ever had was his point of view. And being a hopeless romantic myself, I left pleased that hopeless romance was ultimately vindicated, as it should be in a light summer romcom. Pleased but just a bit let down that the denouement didn't quite live up to the convention-defying creativity of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, if you love a quirky romance (or Los Angeles architecture), you'll enjoy this. Who knew Ikea could be so fun?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

FILM: Patrik 1,5

I'm glad that George has been keeping his ears open for good OutFest films, since we've never managed to be proactive about the film festival. Fortunately, we were able to get spur-of-the-moment tickets for this evening's showing of Patrik 1,5, a charming Swedish film, presented under the stars at the Ford Amphitheater. It was a lovely summer night, and we enjoyed the heartfelt film very much. The film tells the story of Göran, a handsome sensitive doctor, his husband Sven who's a bit rougher around the edges, and their goal to move into a suburban neighborhood, adopt a baby, and have a nice family. Actually, it's a bit more Göran's goal than Sven's, the latter already having a teenage daughter from a previous straight marriage. But they press on, and the story gets its title twist when through a bureaucratic error, their anticipated 1.5-year-old adoptee turns out to be a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent, with a foul mouth, a bad attitude, a dose of homophobia, and a history of violence. Göran, Sven, and Patrik all have a lot to work through, but it is great to see the relationships develop, and how each affects the others. The story of this improbable family develops against the backdrop of Swedish suburbia, and the film pokes gentle fun at neighborhood dynamics -- neighborhood associations, garage sales and parties, and the pressure to keep up one's garden. At the same time, it explores the diversity of acceptance of a gay couple in the neighborhood, with reactions ranging from open acceptance to simmering hostility, with a lot of awkward politeness in between. While it touches on heavier subjects, it is never ponderous, and the tone is lightly sentimental throughout. It's a great story about genuine family values.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

FILM: The Hangover

We laughed and laughed last night watching The Hangover. I generally don't go for sophomoric humor, but every once in a while, a low-brow film just gets so creative and so funny that it transcends the genre (think Animal House). The Hangover really hits it, and I think what makes it work is the totally outrageous story and the creative way it is unfolded. The film opens with a funny and attention-stoking scene from near the end of the story, then rewinds to the beginning with four guys going off for a bachelor party in Vegas, splurging on a suite at Caesar's Palace, and kicking off the evening with shots of Jagermeister on the roof of the hotel. A cool time-lapse sequence of darkening sky followed by dawn over the Vegas skyline tells us that the night has passed, and we flash forward to the guys waking up from an awful hangover, and none of them can remember anything of the night before to explain why the suite is trashed, a couple of wild animals are wandering loose in it, and the groom is nowhere to be found. From there ensues a totally wild, crazy, hysterical adventure around Vegas to try to piece together what the heck happened, and to find the groom so they can get him to the wedding on time. What unfolds is so zany and so unexpected that, if you tried to imagine the wildest "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" story, this film would show you the limits of your imagination. If you could stop laughing long enough to try.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

FILM: Chéri

Comparisons of Chéri to Dangerous Liaisons are inevitable, not only because both are French period pieces of romantic intrigue, but because it reunites three great talents in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents), writer Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American), and actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Though set in the turn-of-the-century twilight of French courtesans, rather than the height of Rococo excess, Chéri delivers sumptuous costumes, beautiful period sets, and displays of witty repartée. Michelle Pfeiffer is exquisite as Léa de Longval, a still-beautiful but nearing-retirement-age courtesan, who is in control of every social situation, except perhaps when she meets her match in the young playboy Chéri, played by Rupert Friend with utmost insouciant hedonism. Kathy Bates is (and has) great fun as Madame Peloux, friend and colleague of Léa and mother of Chéri. Alas, despite all it had going for it, the film never quite went anywhere. Léa and Chéri have a long listless affair, which ends when Chéri enters an arranged marriage. They're both miserably missing each other, which she attempts to shoulder with some grace while he makes no efforts to hide his feelings from his charming young wife who deserves better. Then in the end, we get a climactic scene which feels like it ought to be a denouement, except that the characters' motivations are muddled, and I'm at a loss to understand why they did what they did. The final scene, a prolonged close-up on Michelle Pfeiffer's face, is a self-conscious echo of the final scene of Dangerous Liaisons, but without the same punch, since the audience is thinking "huh?" instead of "oh!". Perhaps sensing the lack of satisfying finality, there's a voice-over post script letting us know what becomes of Chéri, but it's equally puzzling and unsatisfying. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Colette, and the voice-over tries to give us Colette's sequel, La Fin de Chéri, in a mere couple of lines, which hardly seems just. Maybe I should read the books to see if the character development makes more sense. At the end of this film, we had enjoyed the great performances and period setting, but it was no Dangerous Liaisons.

Monday, June 29, 2009

BOOKS: The Drunkard's Walk

CalTech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, in his book "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives", offers a fascinating lesson on the development of our understanding of probability and randomness, and how randomness is widely misunderstood and underestimated even today. The core chapters of the book present a sequence of concepts in probability theory, but rather than just present dry theory, Mlodinow takes the much more interesting approach of presenting the concepts by way of the history of their development, making it not only the story of the development of ideas, but of the colorful characters who contributed to them. Along the way, we meet a Renaissance doctor who made more money at games of chance than treating the sick, a Swiss dynasty and full-scale soap opera of mathematicians, and a mathematician who experienced a religious conversion and made a probabilistic argument for the existence of God. He does a good job of carefully explaining the concepts with good examples. Many of the examples are surprisingly counter-intuitive, such as the "Monty Hall problem", supporting the point that our brains tend to be wired counter to correct probabilistic reasoning. The book begins with a discussion about how much we may underestimate and underrecognize the role of randomness in our lives, and at the end returns to the theme of how much we misattribute success or failure to our own efforts while neglecting the role of chance. He touches on a wide variety of applications, from baseball (home run records and world series outcomes) to movie industry executive performance and mutual fund management success, illuminating how much of such outcomes are random. And he discusses some surprising psychological experiments that expose our innate tendency to find patterns in random "streaks" and to attribute intentional control over things we don't actually control (even when we know better). Not only does Mlodinow succeed in making mathematical theory and history quite fascinating, but he demonstrates the applicability of randomness in our lives in ways that will make you ponder.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

FILM: The Brothers Bloom

To Catch A Thief as written by Lemony Snicket...
On the spur of the moment, I decided to check out The Brothers Bloom, a dark quirky con man / relationship comedy. Picture something like Paper Moon or The Sting, as if they were written by Lemony Snicket. The whole film has that slightly dark and vaguely surreal quality of Lemony Snicket (or the TV show Pushing Daisies), with characters, costumes, and some elements that seem very a-hundred-years-ago mixed in with modern cars and other contemporary elements, which makes it hard to put your finger on exactly when the film is set, at the same time as it makes it easier to accept the fantastic bits. Certainly there are no characters in real life like the ones in this film, but the film succeeds in making you believe, at least for a couple of hours, that there could have been. There's also an overlay of fairy-tale quality that starts with the title, is launched by having a narrator, and by the Dickensian childhood of the brothers, and is maintained by a series of timeless settings including a Newportesque mansion, steamer ships and trains, and the city of Prague. The lead actors are all superb, starting with Rachel Weisz as Penelope, a fantastically multi-talented and fantastically rich but slightly autistic hyper-eccentric heiress. Not having ever encountered such a person in real life, it's hard to make claims about authenticity, but if such a person ever existed, Weisz's Penelope was absolutely her. Adrian Brody is charming as the broody younger Bloom who's been conning so long that he longs for his own authentic life but doesn't know if he's capable of one. And Mark Ruffalo is perfectly elusive as Stephen, the mastermind of the brothers' cons, who may or may not love his brother beyond pulling off the next con job. Rinko Kikuchi adds spice and humor as the enigmatic Bang Bang, and Maximillian Schell and Robbie Coltrane add mysterious shady characters to the mix. Penelope is the ultimate prey of the brothers, but she adds an element of unpredictability, and as Bloom may be developing real feelings for her, you just really don't know who's playing whom and how. The scenery and overall visual texture are marvelous, and I found the quirky story engaging to the surprising end.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hyperventilating Over Smelt

Many gay Americans have been starting to wonder when our "fierce advocate" in the White House is going to start delivering the change that we can believe in. And today, salt was rubbed in the wound of Obama's inaction by the Justice Dept filing a brief in a federal case defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And in a painful irony, this comes not only during Pride month of the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, but it comes on the anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision ending miscenegation laws in the US. I first learned of this from Andrew Sullivan's blog (my first read nearly every morning), who linked to John Aravosis, and based on his diatribe, I was outraged. The brief was characterized as egregious anti-gay rhetoric and religious right arguments, comparing gay marriage to incest, and more.

Now this evening, I've had a chance to read what a lot of bloggers have had to say about it, but more usefully, I had a chance to read the actual DOJ brief, and I'm a lot more sanguine about it than others. Some of my observations, and reasons for calming down and taking a deep breath.

First, the case itself, formally known as Smelt v. US, is not the recently-filed case against Prop 8 that Olson and Boies are representing. This case comes from a gay couple in Orange County who have, against the advice of pretty much every gay advocacy group, been filing federal marriage-related challenges for the last few years. In fact, several gay advocacy groups have filed briefs against Smelt's cases, because they think they are very ill-advised, likely to lose, and likely to leave very damaging precedents on the books. They don't seem to have a very good lawyer representing them, and from a legal standpoint, their particular case is weak and overly broad in its claims and redress sought. While I don't begrudge anyone the right to go to court and press their claims, it is in the best interest of our larger cause if this case would just go away.

Fortunately, that's very likely to happen. The first part of the DOJ brief argues some legal technicalities about jurisdiction and "standing", and those arguments seem to me to be fairly strong. A court will always consider these types of arguments first, before considering the "merits" of a case, and I predict this case will get tossed out on the technicalities, without the court even having to look at the merits.

Meanwhile, there is a much, much stronger and better advocated case being brought in Massachusetts challenging DOMA, and there is the Boies/Olson challenge against Prop 8.

As for the rest of the DOJ brief, I think much of it is legally sound, and I did not find the rhetoric nearly as "egregious" as I was lead to expect. This was definitely not a brief written by the likes of the Prop 8 proponents. They rightly pointed out the reasons why this case is on weak legal footing. For instance, this particular case is not about a right to marry, it is about a "right" to get certain federal benefits. In these sort of constitutional challenges, you always want to show that a fundamental right is implicated, or that a suspect classification is involved, or best, both. In this fact pattern, the fundamental right claim is hard to sustain. It's only the suspect classification prong where there's any traction to be had, and even that is an uphill battle against precedent.

The DOJ brief is weakest where it defends against the suspect classification charge, and it does make some dodgy claims, which have been rightly pounced on. "DOMA does not directly or substantially interfere with the ability of anyone, including homosexuals, to marry the individual of his or her choice. … DOMA merely clarifies that federal policy is to make certain benefits available only to those persons united in heterosexual marriage, as opposed to any other possible relationship defined by law, family, or affection." While this sounds very much like the "both gays and straights have an equal right to marry someone of the opposite sex" canard, it's not exactly saying that. It's also admitting very clearly that the classification is one of sexual orientation, which nicely sets up the argument as to whether that is a justifiable classification.

It makes the novel argument that through DOMA, Congress is maintaining "neutrality", such that citizens of some states are not forced to subsidize marriages that go against their public policy just because another state approves of those marriages. But this seems a little odd after an earlier part of the brief went into detail about how state marriage laws differ, and that can and should be tolerated. If this "neutrality" were to be taken seriously, then the federal government wouldn't recognize first-cousin marriages because that would force the people of Arizona, who are appalled by such things, to subsidize the first-cousin marriages of New Mexico. Likewise, the federal government wouldn't recognize the marriage of 16-year-olds in Indiana because it wouldn't be fair to New Jersey, who insists on age 18. (Alas, this "neutrality" is just the sort of nonsense that is allowed to pass the "rational basis" test, if that what's the court decides is appropriate to apply.)

The DOJ brief also cites Loving v. Virginia, but with a very bizarre reading of it. According to this brief, the decisive factor in Loving was that the Virginia statute was lobsided, in that it outlawed only whites from marrying other races. Thus, it clearly treated the races differently, whereas the "neutral" DOMA does not. On this reading of Loving, it seems that the Virginia miscegenation statute might have passed constitutional muster if it had prevented all races equally from intermarrying. (The DOJ attorney here is either being disingenuous, or gets poor marks for reading comprehension. I suggest he mark the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia by re-reading the opinion more carefully. While that was certainly part of the opinion, it was by no means all of it.)

There's been much discussion about whether Obama's DOJ should have chosen not to defend DOMA, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. Having the Justice Dept pick and choose which laws it defends seems awfully similar to Bush's "signing statements" that so many of us were (rightly) unhappy about. Especially if the constitutional issues are not completely clear cut. (In my amateur opinion, I think that while DOMA part 3 should be tossed on equal protection grounds, DOMA part 2 may well be constitutional.) I don't think Obama has ever actually said he believes DOMA is unconstitutional, he's said he believes it's bad policy and should be repealed. Now it would just make us all feel better if he would get on that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

BOOKS: The Shack

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about The Shack by William P. Young, so I figured I ought to read it. I thoroughly enjoyed this very fresh, creative imagining of what it might be like to meet God and grapple with the thorny question of how an omnipotent loving God can allow bad things to happen to innocent people. The book takes the form of a personal story, and even though I already knew the outline of the story going in, I was still swept up in it. While the story is clearly a vehicle to deliver some creative theological musings, its earnestness caught me up, and I was holding back tears in many parts of it (not good to cry while driving, you know). The vision Young presents of God is amazing and original, and the spiritual journey of Mac (the protagonist) is like a Divine Comedy for our age. To depict God at all is audacious, and to depict Him the way Young has is especially so, but it is as apt as it is surprising, which is appropriate. God should be bigger than our expectations and imaginings. God should surprise us. I won't give away too much, but this depiction of God and of Heaven reminded me of the beautiful tapestries at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, showing the community of saints as a wonderful mix of men, women, and children of all races, rich and poor, famous and unknown, ancient and modern, side by side. Through Mac's journey, Young presents some intriguing ideas. I liked his metaphor of God-as-man choosing to limit himself when interacting with humans, just as an adult can choose to limit themselves when talking to or playing with a child, in a loving way that honors the relationship. The love of a parent for a child is a powerful metaphor that is richly mined throughout. Mac's encounter with divine judgment is astonishing and brilliant. Some of the ideas are provocative, especially the disdain for much of organized religion. According to Young's God, religion, along with politics and economy, forms the real axis of evil. This God is all about loving relationship, and submission to God's love and God's life as opposed to human independence from God. In this view, organized religion is just another human power structure, an attempt to grasp control over our own security, which leads away from God.

The philosophy underpinning Young's theodicy is not new: bad things happen because God allows us our free will, and because of humankind's separation from God after the fall. What is fresh and original here is the beautiful vision of God's intentions for and relationship with the world, a vision woven around that traditionally unsatisfying answer of free will, making the complete picture surprisingly satisfying. The fact that a bigger picture can make an unsatisfactory answer satisfy is, in a way, the point. From our limited point of view in this world, evil is impossible to reconcile, but when you add God and everlasting life to the picture, it can look quite different. "Love never forces," God says, in a line that echoes 1 Corinthians 13, explaining how He always allows us to make our choices, and how He can turn even bad choices to ultimate good ends. And just when it appears God might be causing evil to achieve good ends, He clarifies that grace neither requires evil nor causes it, but it can make use of it where it occurs. In a beautiful echo of Romans 5:20, He explains, where you find evil, you find even more grace.

One pitfall of writing such a sweeping account, taking on such big questions, is that it's hard to resist faulting Young for not providing every answer. For example, while his theodicy powerfully addresses evil human actions, he doesn't really address natural disasters and disease. It's hard to see earthquakes or cancer as consequences of free will, although in one brief tangential comment, he suggests that these may be reactions of the Creation to our irresponsible stewardship of it (ecological sins, if you will). The metaphor of parent-child relationships to model the God-human relationship is beautiful and powerful, but it also raises some troubling questions. Doesn't a good parent stop their child from running out into the middle of the street? A good parent doesn't allow their children unlimited free will. And the goal of a good parent is for their child to become independent; the child is not raised merely to live out the parent's life. But perhaps that stretches the metaphor too far. The question that most haunted me after the story is this: if God so greatly desires to have a personal relationship with each of us, then why doesn't He give each of us a Shack experience?

The best (though not entirely satisfying) answer to that is of course that God has sent us William P. Young. Through a compelling story and amazing imagination, Young confronts some hard questions -- what does God want from us? what does it mean to truly forgive? what is the nature of grace? why is there evil? -- and he confronts them with the same sort of Christian boldness that Pope John Paul II displayed when he met and forgave his would-be assassin. Mac's journey will surprise, engage, and challenge you. If you have a relationship with God, this book is likely to make you rethink it (in a good way). And if you don't have a relationship with God, this book may make you want to have one.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sotomayor and Personal Finance

Among the critics at the Sunday night family dinner table, the issue that weighed most heavily with my brother was what was revealed by Sotomayor's financial disclosure statements. Her finances are rather remarkable for their sparseness. Apparently, she has no stocks, no bonds, no mutual funds, in fact no financial holdings other than a simple savings and checking account at Citibank. (In a way, that's rather smart for a judge, as it avoids any conflict of interest questions.) What's more, her entire savings (the combined checking and savings accounts) was between $50,000 and $115,000 in 2007, and as low as $30,000 in the previous four years. My brother was shocked and appalled that someone who makes $179,500 a year should have so little saved three decades into her career. She may be very bright in some subjects, he conceded, but in the practical matter of personal finance, she is colossally stupid. Top economist Greg Mankiw expressed a similar doubt. However, many have pounced on this.

Economist Brad DeLong estimates the value of her Greenwich Village condo to be about $1 million, and the value of her pension to be about $2.5 million. As far as I can tell, the condo estimate is speculation based on the general neighborhood where she lives, since her exact address and details of her home financing are not part of the public disclosures (although there appears to have been a reference to a home equity loan for improvements a few years ago, at least substantiating that she owns rather than rents). As a federal judge, she can continue working or retire at age 65 as she likes, and either way she draws full salary for the rest of her life.

Statistician Nate Silver crunches the numbers, and figures that her salary affords a very nice but by no means extravagant life for someone living in Manhattan. He notes the high tax rates (including a 3.86% city tax on top of state and fed) and figures $65,000 of her salary goes to taxes. He estimates another $65,000 goes to housing (based on average neighborhood rents for a 2-bedroom apartment in a doorman-building in Greenwich Village, $5400/month). That leaves $50,000 a year for utilities, transportation, food, and everything else. As Silver notes, in Manhattan, that would let you eat out nicely, attend a dozen Yankee games, and take a one-week vacation, and not a whole lot more.

Silver also takes Mankiw to task for missing the basic economics of the situation. He notes there are only four basic economic incentives to save money. First is to protect against a drop in income, like losing your job. Sotomayor's paycheck is from the US Government and short of an impeachable offense, she has job security for life, so that incentive is irrelevant. Second is to save for retirement, but as noted above, she has a guaranteed full salary for life, so that doesn't apply either. Third is to save for your spouse and children, but she is single. Fourth is to save for an expensive purchase, like a home (which she already has) or a nice car (which a Manhattanite doesn't need). Based on rational economics, there's really no incentive for Sotomayor to be saving her money rather than spending it.

Further, as USD law prof (and conservative blogger) Tom Smith has noted, someone in her position "any day she wants to she could walk out of her current job and into a partnership at a law firm in Manhattan or DC and get paid (guessing again) maybe $2 million a year, with the potential for a lot more… She has a guaranteed job for life with very generous retirement and health benefits, and any day she decides she wants to be a millionaire, all she has to do is pick up the phone. She's doing a job she must love and be good at or she wouldn't be where she is..."

Based on the evidence, I'd agree that she is working in a job she loves, has plenty enough money to live the life she wants, and has as close to zero worries about financial security as anyone could possibly have. That doesn't sound very stupid to me. I'd say she's one wise Latina.

UPDATE 6/5/09: In a document submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as reported by the Washington Post: "Sotomayor listed a net worth of $740,000, consisting primarily of equity in a $1 million condo in New York's Greenwich Village. She reported having $32,000 in cash and bank accounts, and personal property worth $108,000. Sotomayor reported that she owned no stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other non-real-estate investments."

Sotomayor and Reversal Rates

As the old saying goes, there's lies, damned lies, and statistics. Last Sunday, my conservative aunt was scoffing at Judge Sotomayor's reversal rate, pointing out that she has had five of her opinions reviewed by the Supreme Court, and three of those were overturned. Turns out this has been a right wing talking point, with a Washington Times headline crying "Sotomayor Reversed 60% by High Court." I conceded that it didn't sound good, but I determined to look into it.

One of the first questions to ask is what exactly is the statistic that we're looking at. Judge Sotomayor has been on the 2d Circuit bench for 11 years, and in that time has heard nearly 3000 cases. Only in the more controversial cases is a published opinion typically issued, and she has published 232 opinions. Of those 232, five of them have been reviewed by the Supreme Court. And of those five, three have been overturned. So you could say that 60% of her reviewed opinions were overturned, but you could also say that 2% of her published opinions have been overturned, or that 0.2% of her total decisions have been overturned.

The other more relevant question to ask is how her statistics compare with her colleagues. Here it's useful to note that the Supreme Court only grants review of about 1% of the appeals filed, and the Court, in order to use its time wisely, only grants review to those cases where there is inconsistency across the Circuits, or where they expect to clarify or revise the precedent. In other words, the high court is likely to overturn the cases it selects for review, because it selects the controversial ones. According to statistics compiled by SCOTUSblog, since 2004, the Supreme Court has reversed 73% of the cases it reviewed. So it turns out that Sotomayor's 60% reversal rate is better than average. As Rachel Maddow observed, this is comparable to batting averages, where Sotomayor has a .400 "batting average". That's considered quite good. It has also been observed that Justice Alito, at the time of his Supreme Court confirmation, had a 100% reversal rate.

Knowledgeable attorneys observe that a judge's reversal rate is not a very meaningful statistic. In other words, the critics are clutching at straws here.

University of Chicago Law professor Eric Posner has been analyzing other comparative data about appellate judges, including how often their opinions are cited in other opinions or in law review articles (a measure of their influence and respect of their peers) and how often they have dissented in panel decisions (a measure of how inline with their colleagues they are). His conclusion:

the data should put to rest the rumor that Judge Sotomayor is not a competent jurist. She holds her own among a highly respected group... If citations reflect quality, Sotomayor may well be one of the top appellate judges in the country.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

FILM: Little Ashes

It wasn't on my radar at all, but George caught wind of an intriguing British-Spanish film called Little Ashes, about the relationships between the artist Salvador Dalí, poet/playwright Federico García Lorca, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who became close friends in the early 1920s attending university in Madrid. I'm glad we caught this interesting and illuminating film, as it was playing only at the Laemmle Music Box and only for another week. The film does a great job of portraying these three fascinating men, and in capturing the milieu of Spain in the heady 1920s, when young intellectuals dared to rebel against the conservative social order, and the tumultuous 1930s leading up to the Spanish Civil War. I was familiar with Dalí's paintings, and had seen a García Lorca play, and the film "Un Chien Andalou" (a collaboration of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and probably required viewing in any modern film class), but I didn't know much about these men's lives. I came away from the film with a very vivid picture of García Lorca, the sentimental, soft-spoken though passionate Andalusian poet, portrayed pitch-perfectly by Javier Beltrán (who even resembles a photo I later found of the poet). I came to the film with a notion of what Dalí was like, which was greatly deepened by the equally profound performance of Robert Pattinson (who shows he's got much more in him than teen vampires and Harry Potter classmates). We watch him transform through the film from the shy boy who first shows up at school, becoming more confident and more outrageous, eventually becoming the larger-than-life character of his famous years. The film slowly but relentlessly builds romantic tension between the two, and the romance, which exists more in suspension than in consumation, is shown as a major force in their lives. Buñuel, who seems to have sexual repression issues of his own, impacts the other two as encourager, critic, and collaborator. His portrayal by Matthew McNulty was a hyper-manly Hemingway-esque character, which fits perfectly as this time and place, this social circle, and this story all conjure Hemingway. The texture of the film was marvelous, capturing the period with an authentic synergy of costume, music, lighting and sets (it really felt like an old movie), some tantalizing Spanish scenery, and visual allusions to "Un Chien Andalou" (parts of which were also actually included). The story was compelling, and the dialog mostly authentic and even poetic, except for a couple of spots near the end (Magdalena's farewell and García Lorca's tavern speech) that seemed a bit anachronistic, writing contemporary thinking back into a historical period where it didn't seem authentic. But despite those spots, I felt the story really worked over all. The script was well-grounded in actual history, and though core elements of the story, particularly the romance between García Lorca and Dalí, are speculative at best, it rang true for me. It makes sense that García Lorca would have taken "Un Chien Andalou" personally, and that Dalí and Buñuel would have intended it personally, showing how much these men haunted and inspired one another. The sentimental poet stayed devoted to his country, and remained to try to make a difference there, while the other two ran off to Paris to pursue the artistic and intellectual scene with no serious interest in politics, even as their native country was falling into an abyss. In a way, each man's life was a living reproach of the choices of the other, yet they couldn't escape an admiration of one another's artistic spirit, and on some level, a mutual attraction. A fascinating portrait of the artists as young men.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sotomayor is a Perfectly Good Choriamb

Over at the National Review, Mark Krikorian stirs up a minor tempest over the most pressing issue surrounding the Supreme Court nominee:
So, are we supposed to use the Spanish pronunciation, so-toe-my-OR, or the
natural English pronunciation, SO-tuh-my-er, like Niedermeyer?
He goes on to write about how "putting the emphasis on the final syllable is unnatural in English", and expecting Americans to adapt to that is just multiculturalism gone too far. Once past my initial puzzlement at how Niedermeyer was more English than Sotomayor, what stuck in my craw was the claim about emphasis on the final syllable being unnatural in English. That would certainly be news to people in VerMONT, TenneSEE, or IlliNOIS, in DeTROIT, Des MOINES, or San JoSE. (Or perhaps Krikorian thinks San Jose in "natural English" rhymes with banjoes.) It's true that the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon surnames are "trochees", the technical term in prosody for two-syllable words whose cadence is STRONG-weak. JACKson, LINcoln, WILson, REAgan, CARter, CLINton. But it doesn't mean that "iambs" (weak-STRONG) are unheard of. MonROE, for instance. Those iambs, because they change it up, can give a cadence that's distinctive but hardly unnatural to English. Just ask Shakespeare, who wrote most of his work in iambs. They're hardly exotic. Without iambs, Krikorian wouldn't be able to proPOSE or deBATE, atTACK or deFEND, reFUSE or aMAZE. Let aLONE deNOUNCE a SuPREME court nomiNEE. You get the idea. Now he might protest that iambs are fine, but a four syllable word with final stress is just a phoneme too far. But it turns out that a four syllable pattern with the cadence STRONG-weak-weak-STRONG has a name, a "choriamb", because it carries a distinctive punch. That's why "hip hip hooRAY" sounds right, and that's why "seventy-six" sounds more catchy that "sixty-seven". A choriamb is quite natural in English, and as American as "blueberry pie" or "four on the floor". SotomayOR is a perfectly good choriamb, no more of a tongue-twister than "American flag" or "not anymore". So I say: Open the DOOR for SotomayOR.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sotomayor and Identity Politics

It's unfortunate that those who profess to abhor identity politics seem unable to see or talk about anything else when someone other than a white male is nominated to the Supreme Court. Even those who try to express their reservations in measured terms end up saying odd things along the lines of "We want to give her a chance to show that she can be an impartial judge, setting aside her identity as a Puerto Rican woman." Yet, when Roberts and Alito and Breyer and Souter were being confirmed, these same people never thought to question whether those men could set aside their identity as white men. A member of a minority group is presumed to be partial to their own group, while white men are presumed to be impartial.

White men are also given full credit for their own accomplishments, whereas the accomplishments of a minority are always suspect. People are thinking she's probably not as smart as her peers, but was advanced by affirmative action. In the discussions about Sotomayor, you can hear people raising questions about her intelligence and her jurisprudence that were never raised about Roberts or Alito. With the men, there were questions about their views, about their judicial philosophy, but their reputation for intelligence and for being top in their field was taken as a given. So why, when it's a Latina rather than a white guy, are so many asking "is she really intelligent? is she really excellent?" Personally, I don't have to look far to satisfy myself on those counts. While a policy of minority preference could possibly have been a contributory (but not decisive) factor into getting her accepted to Princeton and to Yale Law, there was no such factor in her graduating summa cum laude or becoming editor of the Yale Law Review. Those are only achieved through formidable intelligence and a lot of hard work. (Cue John Houseman: She got those the old fashioned way. She earned them.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Prop 8 Decision

To some disappointment but little surprise, the Calif Supreme Court announced that they were upholding Prop 8 as a valid amendment to the Calif Constitution, and they were also upholding the existing marriages. Needless to say, George and I were relieved that our own marriage continues to be valid and recognized by the state of California, but sad that other gay and lesbian couples will not be able to similarly enjoy full equality in California (for now). As a matter of policy, I think it will be better in the long run for California to fix this at the ballot box rather than in the courthouse, and I believe that's fully achievable in a few years (if not next year). Politically, overturning the amendment would have had a corrosive effect on the faith of people in our political process, as few would have understood the technical legal arguments supporting an overturn. It would have widely been seen as an activist or result-oriented decision, undermining the credibility of the Court, not just among the rabid wingnuts but among more reasonable people as well.

Legally, while I thought that the arguments for overturning the amendment were well-grounded in the philosophy of constitutional democracy, I also think that the Supreme Court did the right thing here. They interpreted the Constitution as it is written, and not as it ought to be written. Their regret, that our state constitution is too easily amended and does not adequately provide protection against the abridgement of fundamental rights, was manifest. They practically proposed an amendment to remedy that, pointing to specific language in the constitutions of other states that explicitly protects fundamental rights. (But would that be a revision?) Their conservative decision belied the accusations of liberal activist judging that were levied by those who didn't like the Marriage Cases decision.

On the upside, the Court went out of their way to emphasize how much of the Marriage Cases opinion is still good law. The Court affirmed the finding of the constitutional right of same-sex couples to "choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage", that that right is fundamental (embodied in the constitutional right to privacy and due process), and that same-sex orientation is a suspect class. And note that while the Marriage Cases opinion was 4-3, all 7 justices signed onto or concurred with this affirmation. (The three dissenting justices from the Marriage Cases all signed on to the majority opinion here.)
Further, the Court reasoned that because Prop 8 did conflict with a fundamental right, legal construction rules required it to be interpreted as narrowly and specifically as possible. The opinion went on to spell out exactly how constrained that interpretation would be: Prop 8 constrains the designation of "marriage", and nothing more. It does not touch any of the substantive rights found in the right to marry. Thus, if any of the anti-equality folks harbored secret hopes of using the constitutional amendment as a beachhead to dismantle domestic partnerships, those hopes were pre-empted by this opinion. The Court prospectively interpreted Prop 8 as narrowly as possible, dug a moat around it, put yellow police tape around that, and said "move along folks, nothing to see here…" (Though the Court does not properly do prospective interpretation per se, they cleverly worked it in as an essential part of their amendment vs. revision analysis.) And of course the narrow construction included unanimously upholding the 18,000 pre-Prop 8 marriages.

The Court was as positive as it could be about same-sex marriage in a case which marriage wasn't directly at issue. The actual legal issue at hand was the ability of the people of California to enact constitutional amendments that abridge fundamental rights, a question which boiled down to technicalities about "amendments" versus "revisions". And the unfortunate answer is that it appears that 51% of the voters in a single election can indeed amend the state constitution to curtail "inalienable" rights, with the only backstop being the U.S. Constitution. Thus, with amendments, the appeal to the independent interpretation of the state constitution, so zealously guarded by the Court in Raven v. Deukmejian, is out the window. The Court even suggested that had the revision vs. amendment argument been raised in Mulkey v. Reitman (a 1964 initiative constitutional amendment overturning legislation that outlawed racial covenant restrictions in real estate transactions), it would have been upheld as validly enacted (though it was struck down as violating the U.S. Constitution). While this is causing some alarm among minority and civil rights groups, we should follow their advice and direct our energies toward fixing this flaw in our state constitution, rather than get mad at the judges who are just interpreting it as it is.

That being said, I do have to applaud Justice Moreno's passionate dissent. I'm glad there was a voice of dissent, scolding the other justices for backing away from their own strongly articulated Marriage Cases holding that even a difference "in name only" can create substantive unequal protection of the law. When it's time for Scalia to be replaced, I hope they consider Justice Moreno. That would be karmic balance.