January 05, 2004

Some media consumed during the first half of the break

This year, I'm going to try to keep a better record of what I read. I'm reading more nonprofessionally than I have in several years, so I'll brave the future in which I wince rereading my notes in order to be able to remember it all.

The Return of the King

Smallville: "Lineage" and "Hourglass"

Reversal of Fortune. This is a longtime favorite of mine. To my mind, it's the most thoughtful of all movies about the American legal process, which manages to wrap a troubling meditation on the inescapable indeterminacy of narrative and the inherent limitations of a system of justice that depends on it in a traditional crusading-lawyer-rights-a-wrong story. Strong performances by Glenn Close and especially Jeremy Irons as the impeccably, hilariously, disturbingly odd Claus von Bulow (though you'll never convince me that the Oscar he won for the performance wasn't a retroactive award for his work in Dead Ringers a year earlier--Jonathan Demme hadn't yet established that you could win Oscars for a mere horror film). A bit too celebratory of Dershowitz, but what can you expect?

Tom Shales, Live from New York. This was a Christmas present from my sister, a Saturday Night Live retrospective. To me it was interesting primarily as an exercise in triangulation of characters described from multiple perspectives, though there were some hilarious passages. There was more candidness than I would have expected from the interview subjects, but that's only valuable in so far as you're really interested in the topic, and my interest is fair-to-middling, especially after the earliest era. Still, if you enjoy SNL, you'll probably find this a worthwhile read.

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men. I am perpetually rereading the Nero Wolfe novels. Despite the obvious flaws (occasionally half-hearted puzzles, authorial manipulation to delay resolution), their charm will never fade for me. Nero Wolfe was my first model for how to live an independent intellectual life, though even as a naive kid I appreciated the value of Archie's sardonic counterpoint to his pretensions. LFM is the tale of a group of men who fear they're being murdered one by one by the victim of a college hazing many years earlier. It's one of the earlier novels, in which Stout was, I suspect, trying to sell his mysteries as more mainstream dramas. Wolfe pontificates at the drop of a hat and there is some lurid melodrama that's supposed to be character work. Read it for the banter and the period atmosphere.

Stout, Too Many Cooks. A slightly later novel, with Stout just hitting his stride. Wolfe attends a retreat of world-class chefs for...reasons of his own. The characterization is much more appealing and plausible in this one (if it's fanciful in spots, it's a charming rather than a grim fantasy, and it manages to avoid the Curse of Twee that so often strikes the "exotic-world-of-[x]" mystery), the humor is top-notch, and the puzzle better-than-average. [Note: there are some awkward moments dealing with black characters, but given that the book was published in the 30s, I tend to think Stout was well-meaning if insensitive at points here.]

Lost in Translation. This is the kind of film that may not improve with multiple viewings, as it's so delicate and lyrical that it suffers when the mind starts dissecting mid-scene. My third viewing was not the best, but it's still a lovely and haunting piece, a perfect depiction of cultural vertigo and the tender fragility of human affections. It also features the first Yalie heroine in recent memory.

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