Saturday, July 24, 2010

Some Notes on Inception

  • My overall reaction was slightly more positive than negative -- the movie is fairly entertaining as it goes by -- but I have major issues, too. What prevents Inception from being a classic pop thriller is overload. Going down three dream layers is probably too much, but going down four is ridiculous. From the moment the bus goes off the bridge in the first dream layer to the moment when it hits the water is an hour of screen time; that's simply too long, and certainly not justified by the material. Ultimately Inception is a rather wearying experience, and therefore not a film I'll be that likely to re-visit.
  • The rules of the dream explorations are very confusing, and the dreamscapes themselves are often far too stable. I have to agree with a friend who said that he doesn't dream in action sequences.
  • Dreams on film are really hard to do. Jan Svankmajer is possibly the best at this, and it is significant that most of his films are shorts.
  • The cast of Inception is terrific top to bottom, without a single weak link; that alone makes the film enjoyable much of the way. I especially appreciated Joseph Gordon-Levitt's deadpan; if anyone wants to make a Buster Keaton biopic, here's your man.
  • Marion Cotillard gives the single best performance; as David Denby points out in his New Yorker review, her scenes are the only ones with real emotional weight, and that comes out of her acting, not out of the humdrum lines Nolan wrote for her. Although I wasn't that crazy about La Vie en Rose as a whole (Nolan's use of Piaf in Inception is a witty touch), Cotillard completely deserves her international fame and awards. She's right up there with Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett as one of our finest contemporary actresses. 
  • I honestly am having a hard time thinking of any other film that is so thoroughly a tissue of influences. I felt the presence of The Shining (the hotel scenes), Michael Mann's The Keep (the histrionic use of music), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (the ski sequence), Blade Runner (the ambiguous open ending), John Sayles's Limbo (ditto), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (scrambled temporality and overall mood), Zabriskie Point (the exploding streets of France), Intolerance (cross-cutting between four different story-lines), etc., etc. Christopher Nolan is a director of the second rank because he is essentially a magpie; he steals bright shiny objects (and he does not then proceed, as Quentin Tarantino does, to make them his own).
  • I would categorize surprise endings and open endings and any endings intended to send an electric current through your body as "frisson" endings. Inception has unquestionably got one, but it's a little too obvious to be truly magical; it's laboriously set up, and the crib from the Blade Runner director's cut is glaring. Two of the best frisson endings of all time are in the Tarkovsky science fiction films, Stalker and Solaris. The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man has a wonderful and truly unexpected frisson ending that achieves the level of mystery that Nolan reaches toward rather clumsily in Inception.  
  • So: a decent summer blockbuster, far better than most of its kind. But I didn't find it special, and the closing sequence that some especially like is precisely where the film falls apart for me big-time. (When I first typed this, I wrote "clockbuster" rather than "blockbuster"; I think that was Freudian!)
  • Denby's review is by far the best I've read, so here is the link:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Housekeeping: Postscript

I think I spoke too soon about keeping up the effort involved in compiling PMD. I just reviewed my Google Analytics reports for June, and the readership of the blog has dropped precipitously. There was a slowing down in my frequency of posting, but not too drastic a slowing down, and yet the number of visits, unique visitors, and page-views were all off drastically. The average time spent on site was way down, too, and it has never been long enough to browse, let alone read, one of the daily entries. The same few Google searches relating to The Sopranos, The Apprentice winner Bill Rancic, and some menswear topics (black and white spectator wingtips, Bermuda shorts) have been driving the majority of visitors to the blog for months. Hmm, not exactly what I have in mind.

I love researching this blog because every subject it touches on interests me greatly; I will do that spadework in any case. I love writing it, too, but making the entries good on a daily basis is terrifically time-consuming. Now that I am working full-time again, of course my available time has diminished, and so the hours spent on composing PMD cut very considerably into my leisure for actual book reading, movie watching, music listening. If the readership had grown over the life of the blog, I'd happily make that sacrifice. But it hasn't, and so maybe I shouldn't.  

Probably it is time for another format change. PMD has had several. It has gone on hiatus a few times as well, and has always come back; I'm not interested in killing it and I never have. It disappoints me, of course, that the format of canvasing the broader cultural world on a daily basis that I started in December 2009 has not "caught on," not even a wee bit. The world has fragmented, and most people seem to be mainly interested in a niche or two. I cannot be that way; it would be utterly foreign to my nature. I am grateful for the few kindred spirits who have found what I do here to be interesting or appealing.

I may take a little break and then return with posts that cover the same territory in a way that is more manageable for me. I certainly enjoy having the writing outlet. Right now I'm also writing in detail on my Korean experiences for a very select group (that will remain so, for self-protective reasons).

Therefore I'm not really going away, maybe not even for as long as a few days. I might post later today; it depends on what occurs to me. But I think that the June 24 post will be the last of the long-format daily entries with lots of weblinks and the enumeration of birthdays (even that part takes plenty of work) -- at least for now. Those entries lasted six months, and they were a blast to write. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Faithful readers will have noticed that I am still running about a week behind on daily entries, which has been the case since I arrived in Korea. I've thought of doing short entries to catch up, but for now I remain committed to carrying on as usual until I come current. Orienting myself to a new job in a new country has taken a good deal of time and energy, but life should start to become more "normal" as I move into July. I enjoy the discipline of researching and writing the blog, and that has not diminished an iota. 

June 24

When I was a freshman at my Catholic boys' high school in New Jersey, my gifted social studies teacher once played us an LP side of Leonard Bernstein's notorious, underrated, now rehabilitated masterpiece Mass, which was written upon commission from Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein took some hard critical knocks for this extravagant, polymusical piece that drew upon the ferment of its time -- it was premiered in 1971 -- and upon all of the musical traditions that Bernstein loved. But I think time has vindicated this quasi-Catholic mass composed by one of America's greatest Jewish musicians. It has been increasingly performed and recorded (notably by conductors Kent Nagano and Marin Alsop) in recent years; we are only beginning to live with it. When my teacher played it for us, he was discouraged by our apparently noisy, inattentive reaction; but I contacted him years later to let him know that that class was a "life moment" for me -- his example is a key reason why I am a teacher today. The beauties of the Mass, including the majestic opening number "A Simple Song," have remained with me as an inspiration. Here is a gorgeous recent interpretation of "A Simple Song" in a Latvian performance led by conductor Maris Simais; Douglas Webster is the Celebrant.


The vocal and instrumental swell on the lyric "And the sun shall not smite me by day/Nor the moon by night" never fails to wipe me out.

Stephen Bowie is doing some excellent interviews at his blog Classic TV History; the latest is with the wonderful actress Shirley Knight.

Knight pays tribute to the head of casting at CBS, Ethel Winant, who first saw her in a production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger that co-starred Dean Stockwell: "Ethel really was the person who, more than anyone else, championed my career.  She would put me in everything." Winant is one of the unsung heroes of the arts. Robert S. Alley's and Irby B. Brown's excellent book Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- one of the best books ever written about a television program -- has a chapter describing Winant's casting of that show, including her discovery of Valerie Harper at a little theater. Casting (for which there really should be more awards, such as an Oscar) is utterly crucial to theatrical, televisual, and cinematic endeavors, but its nuances are little explored in print; Alley's and Brown's account of the casting process is the best I have read since Pauline Kael's famous essay on the making of Sidney Lumet's film The Group (included in Kael's book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

New music circles have been excited by the recent performance of Iannis Xenakis's Persephassa for six percussionists on Central Park Lake in New York:

Like many of [Xenakis's] works, “Persephassa” has a spatial element. He intended the percussionists to be placed far from one another in a hexagonal formation with the audience in the middle. The 30-minute piece has never been performed on a lake, the producers say. A veritable flotilla of rowboats made it to the west side of the lake on a hot, clear afternoon to hear “Persephassa"....Mostly there were four people to a boat. Two percussionists were stationed in gazebos on the shore; another performed from a bluff of rocks. Three others played on plywood platforms....atop two boats secured together. These boats had two rowers charged with keeping the platforms relatively steady.

persephassa on the lake from liubo on Vimeo.

Spatialization exists throughout Western musical history (the Berlioz Requiem with its placement of  brass bands, for example) but really takes off in the 20th century with Xenakis, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Henry Brant, and others. Of course it needs to be experienced live for full effect; but the video excerpt of the Persephassa performance above is thrilling.

I mentioned here on January 14 of this year how an early Seventies PBS television interview with photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton inspired me as a young man (just as hearing Bernstein's Mass around the same time did). The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester has mounted a new show of the World War II photographs Beaton shot for Great Britain's Ministry of Information: 

A Journey Round My Skull has unearthed another wonderful illustrator, Alexandr Mychajlow, although information about him is scant:

Among notables born on this date are poets John Ciardi, Arseny Tarkovsky (Russia), and St. John of the Cross (Spain), short story writer Ambrose Bierce, crime novelist Lawrence Block, scientist/science fiction novelist Fred Hoyle, composers Hugo Distler, Terry Riley, and Harry Partch, film director Claude Chabrol, rock guitarist Jeff Beck, rock drummer Mick Fleetwood, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, philosopher Julia Kristeva (France), political writer Ernesto Sabato (Argentina), economist Robert Reich, and actor Nancy Allen. I can't help loving the excellent story writer Ambrose Bierce for an extra-literary consideration, his disappearance in Mexico as a Pancho Villa sympathizer in 1914, which led to much speculation and theorizing that has continued to this day:

Perhaps the most convincing of the Mexico stories is that of soldier-of-fortune Edward "Tex" O'Reilly in his Born To Raise Hell. He claims to have been contacted by Bierce in El Passo and then in Chihauhua City -- but never met with him. O'Reilly says that several months later, he heard that an American had been killed in a nearby mining camp of Sierra Mojada. He investigated and heard how an old American, speaking broken Spanish, was executed by Federal Troops when they found out he was searching for Villa's troops. The locals told how he kept laughing, even after the first volley of his execution.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Culture of Feedback

...raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something....It’s tempting to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky, but that’s a false hope, because it’s other people who get to decide when they think you’re a jerk, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction. Not caring works surprisingly would be good if more women see interesting opportunities that they might not be qualified for, opportunities which they might in fact fuck up if they try to take them on, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more women got in the habit of raising their hands and saying “I can do that. Sign me up. My work is awesome,” no matter how many people that behavior upsets.

Clay Shirky (my bolding)

The passage by Clay Shirky that I quote above hit me with the force of revelation, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. It comes in the middle of a post in which Shirky urges women scientists and technologists to become more assertive for the sake of their own careers, but the point goes well beyond gender considerations. Shirky's insights help clarify my instinctive recoil from the culture of "feedback." Of course there is no getting through life without feedback, but we have given particular varieties of it an insidious and pernicious centrality. "Let me give you some feedback on that" usually really means, Let me tell you in a polite, business-accepted way what a loser you are; and, Let me also indicate sub-textually how completely awesome I am. Feedback as we commonly understand the phrase today is commentary that intends to assert a "veto power," as Shirky puts it, over the actions of anyone we disapprove. And I think that Shirky's suggested strategic response is the correct one: Try not caring. Do some people who could use a lesson not care about the opinions of others? Of course; we can all come up with examples. Can feedback sometimes be useful? Yes to that as well. But the culture of feedback deserves a spit in the eye, and I am glad to see that, for example, Samuel A. Culbert's and Lawrence Rout's book Get Rid of the Performance Review! has gained some currency in business circles. At my last corporate job, I was -- alas -- responsible for coordinating the annual performance review process; and it is difficult to conceive of a more worthless exercise.