31 May 2008

Plame again

I thought I was done with my little obsession with l'affaire Plame, in which the White House retaliated against Joseph Wilson for calling bullshit on their claims of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program by blowing the cover of his CIA spook wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, through White House aide Scooter Libby.

The trail went cold when President Bush commuted Libby's sentence for his participation ... and unwillingness to testify about who was involved. It seemed that we would never know exactly how Bush and Cheney were involved, though we have good evidence that Cheney gave the order to Libby. That commutation of the sentence should have been grounds for impeachment—since it was the President using his pardoning power to protect himself—but you know how it goes.

I thought that was that, but now, via DeLong, I learn that Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel just caught Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary, revealing something important.

I learned that the President had secretly declassified the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq for the Vice President and Scooter Libby to anonymously disclose to reporters .... I walk onto Air Force One and a reporter had yelled a question to the President trying to ask him a question about this revelation that had come out during the legal proceedings. The revelation was that it was the President who had authorized, or, enable Scooter Libby to go out there and talk about this information. And I told the President that that's what the reporter was asking. He was saying that you, yourself, was the one that authorized the leaking of this information. And he said “yeah, I did.” And I was kinda taken aback.
I'm kinda taken aback too. This is slippery, since it's in the context of talking about the leak of the National Intelligence Estimate. But. We know that Libby leaked both the NIE and Plame's identity to journalist Judy Miller at the same time. It's not hard to connect the dots and conclude that the President of the United States authorized his lieutenants to blow the cover of an American spy who was working to prevent nuclear proliferation.

30 May 2008

Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Nothing really needs to be said beyond what you've doubtless already heard: yeah, it delivers the goods.

No, it doesn't measure up to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was simply a charmed film ... and in my own case it benefits from having first cast its spell over me when I was ten years old. But Crystal Skull is fun, it gets the important things right, and it gave me the thing I wanted most. (I'll get to that last.)

Sixty seconds into the movie it reminds you that Mr Steven Spielberg really knows how to move the camera. All the gripes that cinephiles make about Spielberg are true: his tendency to drift into schmaltz, his incapacity to understand women, the deliberateness that squeezes out any interesting ambiguities, the lack of story sense, and so on. But I think the real reason for all the kvetching about Spielberg is resentment that these weaknesses are yoked to his uncanny talent for putting the camera where any normal director would think it shouldn't be ... and making it work.

Likewise we see George Lucas' great strength on display as well. Like many, I curse Lucas' many deficiencies, but the man knows how to get magic out of his production designers. All of the stuff in the picture is delicious. There's a scene in a sort of a rocket lab that I wished was longer, just so I could enjoy looking at the set. Mutt's motorcycle is the stuff that biker dreams are made of. And the picture's one sequence with real satirical bite, commenting on '50s suburban culture, works in large part because the production design is so spot-on.

All of the action scenes are brisk and fun, though I had a couple of quibbles. First, though Mr Spielberg has crowed about resisting the temptations of computer generated effects, favoring real stunts with real people—including an awful lot done by an impressively spry Harrison Ford himself—there's still more CG in the picture than there should be: grubby matte paintings and miniatures are part of the look of the Indiana Jones, for me. Second, there are a few bits that violate the compact of “realism” I felt was kept in Raiders: Indiana Jones' acts of derring-do may be wildly implausible, but should never feel impossible.

The crystal skull itself is a bit of a departure in tone from the mystical artifacts of past pictures. (There's a bit of a possible spoiler there that I'll resist, though the picture gives it away pretty early.) I was happy to roll with it, since I felt it was still in keeping with the the pulp tradition, but I can see how other folks might feel otherwise. What can you do? The Ark of the Covenant is pretty much the best MacGuffin ever, so nothing else is going to fully satisfy. I think I was sustained in large part by the hint of the Lovecraftian about the Skull's story ... which made me dream of going all the way to Indiana Jones and the Fish Men of Innsmouth or Indiana Jones and the Mountains of Madness. How cool would those be?

The actors are all having a hammy good time. It's still a pleasure to see Harrison Ford in the hat; his greatest talent has always been his screen presence, and we still believe him as Indiana Jones ... though in every scene he communicates the old joke about “I'm getting too old for this” without having to spoil things by saying it in so many words. Just about everyone else in the picture is also pretty keen. Cate Blanchett manages to be more weirdly, delightfully inhuman than she was as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, if you can believe that. Shia LaBoeuf gets a role that's almost as big an opportunity for embarrassment as his part in Transformers and makes it work. Likewise Ray Winstone, who keeps it together in a part that was obviously originally written for Daffy Duck. The movie doesn't give the mangificent John Hurt enough to do, but then no movie ever could, so he quietly chews the scenery just the right amount.

Which brings me to the real reason I wanted to see the movie.

When I was ten years old I fell in love with Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, and I'm not too proud to admit that I'm still carrying a torch for her. George Lucas insisted that like James Bond, Indiana Jones should have a different love interest in every picture, but in my heart I have always known that Marion was Indy's true love. When they revealed at Comicon that Karen Allen was back (you can see it at 3:00 on this video) I'm told that the assembled crowd broke into hysterical applause, so I guess I'm not alone. It's said that Frank Darabont's attempt at a script for Indy 4 played her as Indy's equal partner in adventure, and I'm peeved that in Crystal Skull she's mostly reduced to looking gorgeous and driving the car. But Harrison Ford plays Indy as giddy at the sight of her, as he should, so I walked out of the theater a happy man.

29 May 2008

Green cities

I went to college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It's a strange and beautiful campus, with vast meadows and classroom buildings peeking out between trees on forested hillsides. I'd often see deer pass within a few yards of me while on my way to class. There was a strongly hippie-ish student culture there, and it was easy to dream utopian dreams of a world like the campus: great cities woven gently into nature, filled with bicyclists stopping at little restaurants to enjoy an organic salad on their way home from work.

But David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, has a different idea.

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn't have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day.

The utopian community was Manhattan. (Our apartment was on Sixty-ninth Street, between Second and Third.) Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.

Owen's article is long and fascinating, and I recently learned that CNN reports that he's right about energy use.

These days I no longer dream of forest cities like UCSC, but of tall steel arcologies alive with people riding its railcars, sitting in the teahouses on the breezy balconies, walking the twisty boulevards of the core that are dappled with sunlight streaming through the superstructure ...

28 May 2008

Literalization of metaphor

Nailing Jell-o to a wall.

Herding cats.

And my new favourite:

Drinking tea with chopsticks in zero gravity, which means “something which sounds absurdly, impossibly difficult but turns out to be the easy right answer.”

27 May 2008

Gender

This long passage from “The Roads Round Pisa,” one among Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, is for three of the most beautiful women in the world, all of whom I know to read this blog: one who goaded me to this with Simone Weil, one who recently wrote about a game of dress-up that made me ache with longing for home, and one who recently lent me an excellent book containing lore about a gentleman's handkerchiefs.

Behind a cut, because it's long ....

The reader unfamiliar with Isak Dinesen may find this passage informed by a few observations:

  • Seven Gothic Tales, Dinesen's first book, was originally published in 1934.
  • “Isak Dinesen” was a male nom de plume which Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke adopted, fearing that as a woman she would not be published.
  • The passage takes place at a roadside inn in Pisa sometime hazily around the late 19th century. “Count Augustus von Schimmelmann, a young Danish nobleman of a melancholy disposition” has been talking to a young Italian carriage-driver. “The boy seem to feel that he had here met a brother of the unhappy Danish Prince [Hamlet], and to open his heart to the stranger on this account.“ At this point, the two have been talking about the Italian's reasons for abandoning poetry in favour of the study of astronomy.


“.... I want to turn to the infinity of space, and from what I have heard it seems to me that the roads of the planets and stars, their elipses and circles within the infinite space, must have the power to turn the mind into new ways. Do you not think so, Signore?”

Augustus thought of the time, not many years ago, when he had himself felt the spheres his right home. “I think,” he said sadly, “that life has its law of gravitation spiritually as well as physically. Landed property, women—” He looked out through the window. On the blue sky of the spring evening Venus stood, radiant as a diamond.

The boy turned toward him. “You do not,” he said, “really think that I am a man? I am not, and under your favor, I am happy not to be. I know, of course, that great work has been achieved by men, but still I think that the world would be a more tranquil place if men did not come in to break up, very often, the things that we cherish.

Augustus became confused to find that he had been treating a young lady as a boy, but he could not apologize for it, as it was not his fault. He made haste to introduce himself and to ask if he could be of any assistance to her on her journey. The girl, however, did not alter her manner toward him in the least, and seemed quite indifferent to any change in his attitude toward her which her information might have caused. She sat in the same position, with her slender knees crossed under her cloak and her hands folded around one knee. Augustus thought that he had hardly ever talked to a young woman whose chief interest in the conversation had not been the impression that she herself was making on him, and he reflected that this must be what generally made converse with women awkward and dull to him. The way in which this young woman seemed to take a friendly and confident interest in him, without apparently giving any thought to what he thought of her, seemed to him new and sweet, as if he suddenly realized that he had all his life been looking for such an attitude in a woman. He wished that he could now himself keep away from the conventional accent of male and female conversation.

“It is very sad,” he said thoughtfully, “that you should think so little of us, for I am sure that all men that you have met have tried to please you. Will you not tell me why it should be so? For it has happened to me many times that a lady has told me that I was making her unhappy, and that she wished that she and I were dead, at a time when I have tried hardest to make her happy. It is so many years now since Adam and Eve”—he looked across the room to a picture of them—“were first together in the garden, that it seems a great pity that we have not learned better how to please one another.”

“And did you not ask her?” said the girl.

“Yes,” he answered, “but it seemed to be our fate that we should never take up these questions in cold blood. For myself, I think that women, for some reason, will not let us know. They do not want an understanding. They want to mobilize for war. But I wish that once, in all the time of men and women, two ambassadors could meet in a friendly mind and come to understand each other. It is true,” he added after a moment, “that I did once meet, in Paris, a woman, a great courtesan, who might have been such an ambassador. But you would hardly have given her your letters of credence or have submitted to her decisions. I do not even know if you would not have considered her a traitor to your sex.”

The girl thought for a time of what he had said. “I suppose, she then said, “that even in your country you have parties, balls and conversazione?”

“Yes,” he said, “we have those.”

“Then you will know,” she went on slowly, “that the part of a guest is different from that of a host or hostess, and that people do not want or expect the same things in the two different capacities?”

“I think you are right,” said Augustus.

“Now God,” she said, “when he created Adam and Eve”—she also looked at them across the room—“arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and a woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me, Count, what does a guest want?”

“I believe,” said Augustus when he had though for a moment, “that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes a way, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, we wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does a hostess want?”

“The hostess,” said the young lady, “wants to be thanked.”

15 May 2008

Good news

I read the news today, oh boy.
There were whoops of joys and hugs and tears among scores of gay rights advocates and same-sex couples this morning outside the California Supreme Court building in San Francisco as word spread that the justices had cleared the way for gay and lesbian marriages.

Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, a gay rights group, ran out of the building on McAllister Street and screamed, “We won!”

I also cannot resist re-linking Mark Morford's celebration of marriage from four years ago.

I was there. I saw the lines, the smiles, felt the intense emotional energy. It was simply irrefutable: These are people in love. These are couples who have been together for years, decades, who have started families and raised children and set up homes replete with dogs and dinner parties and antiques and regular shopping excursions to Safeway and the mall. You know, just like "real" Americans.

These are couples who are willing to go the distance, to commit and connect, and who are eager to prove to themselves and the world that their love is something true and real and momentous, something that, in truth, can only serve to reignite and reunite our stagnant, fractured, contentious, 50 percent-divorce-rate nation. Hey, we need all the help we can get.

And one other thing was very apparent: It was a situation in which you simply could not imagine anyone hurling gobs of intolerant hate at it. It would have required a serious amount of nasty, inbred ignorance and appalling nerve to march up to any of the passionate and committed couples waiting patiently in line for their marriage ceremony and say, you know, God hates you for this, you immoral disgusting sodomites, and it's intolerable and unacceptable that you wish to love and honor each other till death do you part.

I'm sorry I cannot be in my city to celebrate today.


Pride Flag Flying Over the Armory
Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche

02 May 2008

Iron Man

io9's review of Iron Man, by the radiant Charlie Jane Anders, is spot on.
Iron Man is the first comic-book movie that's actually better than its source material. That's partly because Iron Man is one of the most boring characters in the history of comics, but it's also because the movie manages to transcend its source.
Oh, and don't make the mistake I did by leaving before the end credits finish; rumour has it there's a rockin' monk's reward.