From the archives: October 2007

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Caution: Automatic Lust

Monday, 29 October 2007 — 11:04pm | Film, Full reviews

Or, as they say in the London Underground: mind the gap.

Lust, Caution is now playing in select theatres. I had the opportunity to see it a few weeks ago at the Edmonton International Film Festival, and although my impressions of a film are never wholly reliable after only seeing it once, my initial judgment is that it is the very best film I’ve seen with Ang Lee in the director’s chair. Mind you, I’m far more familiar with his recent films than I am with his works in the early 1990s, but this is still a strong statement of praise on my part when you consider that I’m suggesting comparisons to the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—excellent films both, but not as consistently tight in pacing. Highly recommended.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of a spy cinema renaissance? In the last two years alone, we’ve seen Munich, Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum—and I don’t hesitate to append Lust, Caution to the list. Be it the franchise blockbuster or the historical assassination thriller, the standard of achievement in the espionage genre, with respect to both brains and execution, is now at least comparable to the Hitchcock oeuvre without being completely outclassed.

And Lust, Caution begs to reach for the Hitchcock benchmark anyway, regardless of whether or not it succeeds. Even beyond the explicit allusions to films like Suspicion, it’s a film about the manufacture of a woman into a femme fatale, a theme that occurs time and again in Hitchcock’s best work— Vertigo, North by Northwest, and perhaps my personal favourite, Notorious (to name a few). Like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, the femme fatale put in the position of using her sexuality as a tool of entrapment (Wong Chia Chi, played by Tang Wei) is the heroine who guides us through the plot, and not someone whose side of the story is concealed, as is often the case in classic noir driven by male protagonists of variable moral righteousness.

Naturally, how much of that “sexuality as a tool of entrapment” you can actually show has changed dramatically since 1946, which is why Lust, Caution is rated NC-17 in the United States, and where my discussion of the film becomes a tad more involved.

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Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn

Wednesday, 24 October 2007 — 12:20am | Literature, Mathematics

I’m not someone who is intimately familiar with poetry, but I’ve always had a weakness for heroic verse—a trait that has become all too apparent to me again as I pore over the sweeping couplets of Lord Byron’s The Corsair. It’s a pity that the ongoing reinvention of poetic forms in the last century and a half, much as I appreciate some of its products, has progressed at the expense and exclusion of antecedent formal constraints: my impression is that most journals of poetry don’t even take rhyming couplets anymore as an editorial decision—partly under the expectation that nobody can do it well, that they are bound to tumble off the shoulders of the giants of the Western Canon and spiral towards a fiery and generally messy doom. It’s easy to imitate rhyming and metrical patterns and let a work fall into parody, but I almost wish for epic poetry of genuine earnest and good faith.

I’m sure it’s out there, and I just don’t know about it. That’s one of the first rules of art consumption in any medium: never assume that something hasn’t been done. I got a taste of the possibilities when I attended Derek Walcott’s reading at the University of Alberta last month, and I’m really going to have to look into Omeros, Walcott’s reinvention of Homer’s Odyssey.

This is all a fancy setup, by the way, for one of my ill-conceived what’s-the-big-ideas: why not deploy the heroic epic in the genre of science fiction?

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Out of the closet and into the fire

Tuesday, 23 October 2007 — 7:44pm | Harry Potter, Literature

By far the most amusing story on the outing of a certain Harry Potter character (and I know it’s by now ubiquitously known, but I have unconverted readers and will maintain a strict policy of not spoiling anything for them, as I swear to you they will read the books eventually) is this succinct article from CBBC Newsround, the children’s edition of the BBC:

Fans at New York’s Carnegie Hall were initially stunned into silence by the announcement, but soon started clapping and cheering.

JK said: “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.”

The news should help to clear up lots of rumours about [the character’s] mysterious past once and for all.

Yes, I’m quite sure it will.

Rowling has made some additional statements, defending the supposed lack of textual evidence or relevance by arguing that the character “did have, as I say, this rather tragic infatuation, but that was a key part of the ending of the story so there it is. Why would I put the key part of my ending of my story in Book 1?” And she’s quite right. Spoilers follow.

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Dumb and Dumbledore

Saturday, 20 October 2007 — 7:35pm | Harry Potter, Literature

In the Land of Stuff Nick Cares About (More or Less), the top story of the hour is J.K. Rowling’s Q&A session at Carnegie Hall, where she declared that one of her central characters is gay. I’m not going to say who until further down, because I think this is the sort of thing that is best discovered after you’ve already read the books; and if you haven’t read the books, you need to reorganize your life’s priorities. I’m somewhat ashamed of myself for not even remotely picking up on this before, even after several years of unwittingly conditioning myself to detect patterns of repressed homosexuality through the novels of Michael Chabon (whom you should also read, and immediately).

There’s a provisional transcription of the Q&A, and I say “provisional”, because at the time of this writing the transcription is riddled with typos up to and including misplaced negations. It’s a valuable document nonetheless, as Rowling discusses some things we all wondered about, like Aberforth Dumbledore and his goats.

As one might expect, the global juggernaut of the Harry Potter fan base has reacted almost schismatically (to the matter of sexual orientation, not the goats), and their responses fall into several camps. Here’s why all of them are wrong.

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It’s the Intentional Fallacy, Charlie Brown

Friday, 19 October 2007 — 2:58am | Comics, Literature

One day, I’ll make it big as a travelling salesman of amazing k-coloured dreamcoats, and some biographer will dive into this weblog fathom by fathom looking for dirt. Let the hypothetical biographer know this: the most singly monumental cultural influence on my childhood was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. It’s not even a contest.

It is naturally with great amusement that I discovered this video of a radical Islamist Charlie Brown Christmas, and with even greater interest that I received news of a reportedly scintillating Schulz biography by David Michaelis, released this week. Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson wrote an eloquent review for The Wall Street Journal, which is, to the comic-strip enthusiast, like Beethoven writing about Bach. Some of Watterson’s subtler remarks on the connection between the art and the artist are important, and I’ll return to them further down.

As with any biography that begs to scintillate, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography has generated a storm of controversy: the Schulz family, none too pleased with what they allege to be Michaelis’s selective fudging of the evidence, has openly responded with their grievances at one of my daily stops, Cartoon Brew—instantly transforming the thread into a thought-provoking debate on the ethics of biographical writing.

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve been given this impression: great biographical narrative, poor historical scholarship. I’m not a reader of biographies in general, so I have to wonder: is this the industry norm?

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