From the archives: November 2008

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Hofstadter, Powers, Obama: A Politically Hopeful Observation

Thursday, 6 November 2008 — 5:15pm | Literature

Prior to the last week of the American presidential election, I gave little thought to race. I kid you not when I say that for a while there, I completely forgot that Obama would be the first African-American elected to the White House. For some of us foreign observers, anyway, the election was about issues, in spite of the best efforts of the Sarah Palin crowd to convince us otherwise. Colin Powell said it best:

We are only correct in saying that the racial barrier has budged at all because Barack Obama was never, at any point, an identity politician or a token candidate. Race, as overwhelmingly significant as it is, was something to talk about after the electoral votes rolled in. That’s what happened, and that’s what should have happened.

I thought of a book on Tuesday night: the Richard Powers novel The Time of Our Singing, published in 2003. In a roundabout way, it is about Barack Obama. The novel follows the lives of two brothers—half Jewish, half black—who pursue careers as classical musicians. As they see the twentieth-century history of the civil rights movement unfold from their unstable cultural bubble, they have to sort out whether classical music is part of a hegemonic white establishment, or if music just is.

There’s a line from the novel that stays with everyone who reads it:

The bird and the fish can fall in love. But where they gonna build their nest?

Where else? America.

(Well, Canada too—but permit me to set my country aside for the sake of rhetoric.)

The resonance of the Powers novel with the Obama candidacy was so strong, in my mind, that I felt compelled to consult Google to see if anyone else had observed it. As it turns out, someone did—and who should it happen to be, other than Douglas Hofstadter!

Yes, that Douglas Hofstadter. Which makes perfect sense, if you are at all familiar with his work. Richard Powers has always struck me as Hofstadter’s fiction-writing counterpart—what, with their shared interests in deep structure, classical music, artificial intelligence, wordplay, and the dissolution of the form-content boundary as the key to human cognition.

In the interview I linked to above, conducted just prior to the election, Hofstadter passes on the following Palin-drome:

The source of the VP-hopeful’s extensive domestic policy experience:

“Wasilla’s all I saw.”

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Wednesday Book Club: Dreams from My Father

Wednesday, 5 November 2008 — 11:29pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) by Barack Obama.

In brief: Reading this memoir, I learned a lot more about Barack Obama than I did about race. It is impossible now to speculate on what the book must have been like before its author rose to global significance; clearly, it is all the more interesting now because of the ending that had yet to be written. Obama’s ruminations on cultural identity are nothing novel, but rest assured that of the available positions, he adopted the one that is the most confused—which is also the most mature.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Dreams from My Father, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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Ties, damned ties, and sadistics

Monday, 3 November 2008 — 1:50pm | Animation, Film

Le noeud cravate / The Necktie

In commemoration of World Animation Day, the Metro Cinema exhibited two free, back-to-back screenings of National Film Board shorts: a kids’ programme, and another one. I’m not sure what the criterion for inclusion in the children’s screening was, though the films in that package tended to be the ones with a more straightforward attitude to story.

The kids in attendance loved it, at any rate, and broke out in applause at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that among children outside of packed advance screenings and Pixar opening nights. What a treat it must be to see a whole new generation of potential NFB classics at so young an age, when one pays little heed to the finer subtleties of design and technique, but bathes in the overwhelming effect; the age at which a card trick is real magic.

Here in Canada, many people my age who think they only have a casual exposure to animation probably have vague recollections of The Cat Came Back or The Log Driver’s Waltz flickering across their television sets. NFB animation is truly one of the government-funded arts initiatives that is successful even by the Stephen Harper metric, and it isn’t at all a case of nationalistic self-aggrandizement to acknowledge that it has made this country a world player. And considering how many of the best shorts come out of Quebec, I’m glad they’re still here.

As for this weekend’s films: there was a lot to like, and I reserve an especial fondness for the hysterical India-ink anachronisms of Claude Cloutier’s Isabelle au bois dormant (Sleeping Betty) and the punch line that caps off the rhythmic metamorphosis of Malcolm Sutherland’s Forming Game. But there was one film that was the very height of magnificence: Le noeud cravate (The Necktie), Jean-François Lévesque’s mixed-media meditation on the horror of the lifelong dead-end job.

Le noeud cravate was exhibited in both screenings, so I had the pleasure of seeing it twice. I don’t want to give away its most shocking moments, so a careful synopsis will do: a young man receives a striped necktie as a graduation gift, packs his accordion away, and ascends the skyscraper of the aptly named Life Inc. As he rises from floor 25 to 39, the necktie tightens around his neck like a noose, his briefcase overflows with paper, and he develops a hunch. At 40, the only three-dimensional person in an office of 2D worker drones, he wakes up to the realization that he has spent his life sitting in a dimly lit office ironing crumpled paper for no reason whatsoever—so he takes the elevator to the top floor to see what lies ahead.

More than that, I won’t say; you must see it for yourself. I haven’t seen enough of the field to know what the competition is like, but Lévesque’s piece is without a doubt comparable to the quality of past Oscar winners, and I hope it ends up on the shortlist this year.

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