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.

Monday, May 25, 2009

FILM: Angels and Demons

George's mother and her friend Bruce (a former Catholic priest) were visiting us this weekend, and we were surprised to be told that they wanted to see Angels and Demons. Bruce had enjoyed the book. Katie, I think, was going along for the ride. We caught an 8:10 showing at the Americana in Glendale, after determining that sundown was 7:54 (which made George's Mom feel much better, a nuance that only Adventists would understand). We enjoyed the gruesome but rollicking adventure through Rome, and in fact I didn't think it was quite as gruesome as it could have been. Clearly a plot centering on the murder of four cardinals in elaborately painful ways cannot avoid some minimum of gruesomeness, but director Ron Howard didn't dwell in the pain Mel Gibson style nor make you really feel the pain Tarantino style. The idea was horrible enough on its own, and Howard just keep the film moving forward, focused on uncovering and foiling the diabolical plot. This film, more so than The Da Vinci Code, did keep moving. It was able to convey just enough of the symbology to keep it comprehensible, without letting symbology lectures bog down the pace of the adventure. The writers did a great job of paring down the lengthy book to its core plot without losing the essentials. The book had a few more twists and turns, and some elements got altered, but I think the story survived the surgery in good shape. In fact the alterations were enough to jar me into questioning how the film might end, even though I had read the book. So much the better! Tom Hanks reprises Robert Langdon, and seems even better at the character the second time out (although as the LA Times surmised, perhaps it was just that he had such bad hair in The Da Vinci Code, a distraction not repeated here). And Ewan McGregor is very convincing as the Cammerlengo, once I got over the shock of the fact that they'd changed the character to be Irish instead of Italian. The other performances were all good, although I had trouble understanding what Pierfrancesco Favino (Commander Olivetti) was saying. The other star of this show was the cinematography, delivering awesome visuals of St. Peter's Basilica and Square, the pageantry of the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, and many other impressive sights around Rome. This feat is all the more impressive considering I don't think they were allowed to use most of the actual sites to film in. It will be worth buying the DVD when it comes out just to see the behind-the-scenes "making-of" tracks. But don't wait for the DVD to see this film. You'll want to get the full impact on the big screen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

BOOKS: Assassination Vacation

I've spent the last week of commuting in the quirky company of historical commentator Sarah Vowell, reading her book Assassination Vacation. The book traces the people and events leading up to and immediately following the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, interspersing fascinating historical narrative with Vowell's own experiences visiting the markers, artifacts, and monuments that remain from those events. Her unique roadtrip tracks down every route of interest, no matter how seemingly remote or trivial, meandering from the Mütter Museum of pathology which has a piece of the brain of Garfield's assassin; to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, the desolate prison where Dr. Samuel Mudd served, for aiding John Wilkes Booth in his flight after shooting Lincoln; to the Tahawas Club in the Catskills where Teddy Roosevelt received word that McKinley had been shot. Her observations and her conversations with rangers, docents, and other people connected to historical sites, combined with her intricate knowledge, make it an engrossing trip through both history and the Americana that commemorates it. She has a great nose for history's trivial ironies: who knew that Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln would be in close proximity to three presidential assassinations ("the presidential angel of death" as Vowell dubs him), or that John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin saved Lincoln's son. Vowell would be really fun to travel with in real life. She even succeeds in making James Garfield interesting. Apparently among the author's many quirks is that she doesn't drive, so she is always prevailing upon friends to take her places. Sarah, when you're working on your next book, I'll be happy to drive you for one of your explorations!

Friday, May 15, 2009

FILM: Star Trek

On Friday, I skipped work and caught a morning matinee of the new Star Trek movie. (I knew it would be pretty low on George's list, so I'd best just go see it without him if I wanted to see it.) I'd heard good advance buzz, and was delighted to find it lived up to the hype. It was wonderful to see these old new characters again, and at the same time see them in a fresh new way with this prequel / reboot bringing on a whole new cast to play the younger versions of the classic crew. I have to admit that I'd missed a bunch of Star Trek movies over the years. The fourth one (the one that opened with fart jokes and Scotty banging his head into the bulkhead Three Stooges style, and ended with Nichelle Nichols degrading herself as a topless dancer) was so awful that the film franchise lost me for a decade or more. But this latest one, this one was well worth coming back for. The story of how the Enterprise crew first comes together really rings true, and it's great to see how the well-known characters and relationships got their start. Prequels can often feel contrived, especially with such established characters, but this one was very natural, and I just felt "of course that's how it must have been". And despite the well-worn plot device of time travel, it was used to very good effect for the story, for an excuse to bring in Leonard Nimoy as an older Spock, and most of all, as a vehicle to relaunch the whole franchise with familiar characters that are acceptably and intriguingly changed. Chris Pine, channeling James Dean, creates an awesome young Kirk, as an aimless Iowa farm boy with a penchant for bar brawls and driving vintage cars recklessly fast. Zachary Quinto recreates Spock beautifully, still the logical Vulcan, but with his human half more evident, creating a more nuanced character. Karl Urban is a brilliant choice as a young (and cute!) Dr. McCoy, while Zoe Saldana positively smolders as the sultry and fierce young Uhura. Bruce Greenwood was also notable as Captain Pike. If they make more Star Trek movies with the chemistry of this one, they'll have me for the next decade.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Clashes of Same-Sex Marriage with Religious Liberty

In this morning's LA Times, I found an interesting editorial by law professor Robin Wilson, called "The flip-side of same-sex marriage." In it, she argues that "it is possible to legalize gay marriage without infringing on religious liberty", though care must be taken to get the second part of that right. I agree with Prof. Robin Wilson that the enactment of marriage equality should be carefully balanced with religious liberty protections, and welcome her call to do so. When a pair of New Mexico photographers refused services for a same-sex wedding, and were fined for violating state anti-discrimination statutes, that was a clear unjust infringement of liberty. But this important dialog is not furthered by misinformation about the actual cases of conflict, and unfortunately Prof. Wilson trots out several overworked half-truths. That New Jersey church group who lost their property tax exemption status on a public pavilion that they refused to rent for a lesbian wedding? The tax exemption was granted for the pavilion expressly because the group promised to make it open to the public. They could either rent the pavilion selectively, or they could take the tax exemption and rent to everyone equally, but they couldn't have it both ways. The lost tax exemption was on the property tax for the pavilion only. The tax-exempt status of the religious group that owned it was never in question. The closing of Catholic Charities in Massachusetts? Catholic Charities was contracted by the state to provide adoption services. As a private entity, they would be free to discriminate according to their conscience, but by choosing to act as an agent of the state, they must treat all citizens equally. Latter-day Saints Family Services also provides adoption service in Massachusetts, exclusively to heterosexual couples, and has continued to operate since the advent of gay marriage, because they aren't funded by the state. Catholic Charities could have made the same choice, but chose not to. The crucial distinction that Prof. Wilson fails to account for is the difference between private entities and public entities (including entities acting on behalf of or subsidized by the state). Private entities should be entitled to considerable latitude for rights of conscience even when they conflict with values of equal treatment and non-discrimintion. For public entities, on the other hand, equal treatment and non-discrimination are paramount.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

FILM: The Soloist

We were eager to see The Soloist based on its intriguing previews, and having been familiar with the story from Steve Lopez's LA Times series that inspired it. The film met our high expectations and then some, with a pair of tour-de-force performances from Jamie Foxx as the schizophrenic prodigy Nathaniel Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. as journalist Steve Lopez. Writer Susannah Grant did a nice job adapting Lopez's book, telling the story from the chance acquaintance of the two men, to their developing relationship, with Ayers' life in bits of flashback as Lopez uncovers it or Ayers recalls it. Some minor facts were changed in the adaptation, such as creating the character of Lopez's editor and ex-wife (nicely enacted by Catherine Keener), but that device artfully provided good illumination of the fictionalized Lopez's motivations and failures. Foxx's amazing performance of the beautifully written Ayers character portrays his mental illness as vividly as Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man or Russell Crowe's Beautiful Mind, but surpassing those in the aching humanity of this broken man. The tone of the film is enhanced visually by sweeping vistas of Los Angeles, from Elysian Park and Disney Hall, to downtown freeway underpasses and grittier streets not so many blocks away, and musically with a full orchestra Beethoven-heavy Romantic score. In the end, the film keeps it real by not Hollywood-izing the ending.