Archive for July, 2011

The Shakespeare Project: Much Ado About Nothing

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

For it so falls out That what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why, then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession would not show us whiles it was ours.

Much Ado is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and would fight it out with Midsummer Night’s Dream for the title of favorite comedy (Puck has a good right hook). Everything works. The drama is strong, the characters vivid. The dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice sizzles on the page and explodes in performance. They even made a good movie out of it, Keanu Reeves not withstanding.

One element that jumped out at me on a second reading was the critical scene after the failed wedding. Leonato immediately denounces his own daughter, then turns 180 degrees and promises to kill those who slandered her. He is so mortally obsessed with his honor, he almost single-handedly changes this comedy into a tragedy. One could easily see it careening off to having all the leads dead by their own or others’ hands. All because Leonato’s outrage sways with every wind that blows.

What saves the action is the Friar, a part not commented on very much. It is he who suggests delaying rash action until the truth is known. It is he who comes up with the plan to provoke Claudio’s remorse by faking Hero’s death. He literally saves everyone. It’s been pointed out that the only men who survive Hamlet are a student and a soldier. Interesting that the only man in Much Ado who retains hold of his senses is a man of God.

One much-commented upon aspect of the play is the War between the Sexes, as best embodied by Balthazar’s song about the nature of men (which Branagh notably selected as the first words of his marvelous film adaptation). I’ve been recently following the debate between Dan Savage and others about the feasibility of monogamy. Savage has been advocating that people unsuited to it would be better off if they tolerated relationships that are, in his words, “monogamish”: where the occasional infidelity is tolerated so long as the primary relationship is respected and maintained (this being common for much of history). Shakespeare, being an Elizabethan, embraces the idea that men should abandon the “masculine” temperament for sleeping around for the “feminine” temperate of settling down (I’ve described Hollywood versions of this as the Male Maturity Movie). He also embraces the madonna/whore duality and tight control of female sexuality that was so prevalent in his day and has been so damaging to Western thought.

I’m not game to impose modern attitudes on him and pretend that he’s mocking these attitudes: he clearly isn’t. The thread runs through all of his plays. But Much Ado is a great play built on this essential conflict in the natures of men and women and the incompatibility of those natures with societal strictures.

Somewhere, my old English teacher just had an orgasm.

Next Up: Love’s Labours Lost

Weekend Linkorama

Saturday, July 30th, 2011
  • Grade inflation visualized.
  • Why is the federal government encouraging kangaroo courts on college campi?
  • It seems that we get these internets is ruining our minds stories about once a week now.
  • I think this is one of the coolest maps I’ve seen. You could almost redraw states by it. West Texas would be independent, which I’m sure would be fine with them.
  • The Shakespeare Project: The Comedy of Errors

    Saturday, July 30th, 2011

    Marry, sir, she’s he kitchen wench, and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to, but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rages, and the tallow in them, wil burn a Poland winter: if she lives till Doomsday, she’ll burn week longer than the whole world. – Dromio

    The Comedy of Errors is simple pure fun. Oh, I’m sure plenty of people can find deep meaning it. But you don’t have to go that deep to enjoy the pure foolishness of the plot, the characters and the dialogue. I literally laughed out loud a few times, notably in Dromio of Syracuse’s description of Dromio of Ephesus’ wife, from which the above is drawn.

    Even in this comedy, however, you see once again how Shakepeare balances his comedies right on the edge of tragedy. A single mis-step and poorly timed meeting and you end up with one brother killing another for sleeping with his wife, the father executed, the servants in prison and the mother flinging herself from the nearest tall building. But the genius of the comedies is that they never have to play out that way. They don’t have a shocking ending for its own sake. We know, from the first scene, that all will end in laughter rather than tears. In fact, I had the whole plot in mind by Act 2. But, as I’ve said, it’s the journey from Point A to Point B that makes these so enjoyable.

    Next Up: Much Ado About Nothing. One of my favorites.

    Se7en

    Friday, July 22nd, 2011

    Roger Ebert just added Se7en to his list of Great Movies.

    While I liked the movie and own it on DVD, I would hesitate to call it “great”. Spoiler warning!

    The movie is wonderful atmospheric, has some great acting and, for the first 75%, is tense and interesting. It’s certainly more intelligent than your typical crime movie.

    The problem, for me, has always been the final act. For my money, it is not the logical conclusion of the story but a derailment. I know the shocking endings “feels right” to a lot of people but it thinks wrong to me. The whole point of John Doe’s killing was to punish people according to the sin they had committed. But Tracy had committed no sin, certainly not one worthy of beheading. Her killing is simply unearned viciousness.

    What would have made more sense in the context of the film was for Doe to pretend he had killed her. The scene plays out as scripted, with Doe being punished for his envy and Mills being punished for his wrath. Even better, the head could have been that of the model killed earlier for the sin of pride. With the blood and gore, it could easily have been mistaken for Tracy’s. This adds another layer of planning to Doe and another level of vengeance.

    No one ever agrees with me on that, of course. I may be the only person who has ever seen the film who didn’t like the ending. But … it’s my blog.

    Incidentally, Se7en did give rise to one of my movie cliches:

    Black Hat Database: The government collects and stores amazing amounts of obscure information about its citizens, which is part of a large, user-friendly, perfectly efficient database. This database never gives incorrect information or comes up empty, unless the bad guys have “wiped” the relevant records. Enemy of the State is a perfect example. Se7en is probably the worst example as the detectives find a killer through — of all things — a secret federal database that catalogues the checkout of library books.

    Shakespeare 25

    Friday, July 22nd, 2011

    Shakespeare and impressions? How can I lose?

    Friday Linkorama

    Friday, July 15th, 2011
  • Fun with data. The thing is, some social scientist would probably publish this seriously.
  • Your inspiration for the week. Most people are so good.
  • Cool medieval art. I’m so glad I get to enjoy cool medieval stuff (art, literature, professors with armor) and none of the bad stuff (famine, disease, war and death).
  • Because it’s Friday: cute cats.
  • Some questions don’t need to be answered.
  • ASG Non-Fixes

    Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

    Ugh. It begins. Various people are suggesting fixes to the baseball All-Star Game, chief of which is the ridiculous suggestion that we take away the vote from the fans. Because we all know that the game is not for the fans, it’s for the sportswriters!

    The thing is, that the fans are not the problem. Here’s the comment I left at the above link, which ridiculously tried use the 1957 ballot-stuffing scandal as a justification:

    Taking away the vote from the fans seems like an absurd over-reaction. Year-in, year-out, the fans do a good job and generally a better one than the managers do. It wasn’t the fans who picked Russ Martin, Ryan Vogelsong and Jordan Walden. It wasn’t the fans who decided to almost leave off Andrew McCutcheon. Look at the fan vote and I would say they got 15 out of the 17 positions right.

    Maybe you can criticize them for not valuing Johnny Peralta’s good three months over a first-ballot HOFer’s career at shortstop. But the reason so many Yankees and Phillies are on the roster (actually only one Philly was voted in by the fans) is because those are the two best teams in baseball. The fans also voted in three Brewers. Was that ballot-stuffing?

    We see every year. A scandal from half a century ago does not prove that fan voting is bad. It’s one of the few things about the ASG that works. Look at the starters from every year and don’t focus on the one or two bad selections and you’ll see the fans generally get it right. Almost all of the really dumb picks were made by the managers and players.

    Back in reality, Rob Neyer suggested adding a day to the All-Star break so that pitchers who went on Sunday could pitch in the game. That’s perfectly reasonable. Another suggestion might be that for every inning a player plays, a certain amount of money will be donated to his favorite charity. Weight it by their role, so that a starter gets the same amount of money for seven innings and a backup does for one.

    Bad Graph Watch

    Saturday, July 9th, 2011

    This may be the stupidest graph I’ve ever seen. They project Derek Jeter to get 4500 hits if he keeps going at his career pace for seven more years. I mean, gee, if we’re playing that game, why not project him to play another 20 years and get 7,000 hits?

    You can see that the two comparison hit lines drop off abruptly when the players lost their skills. Jeter has already started doing that. At best, I’d expect him to finish with about 3300 hits or so, which is pretty damned good. (Bill James Favorite Toy projects 3400-3500.

    Saturday Linkorama

    Saturday, July 9th, 2011
  • Cracked is so awesome.
  • A thought-provoking cartoon about women’s prisons. Despite my support for ending the War on Drugs, I despise meth with all of my heart.
  • A simply dynamite interview with Bill James. I agree with him on Sherlock Holmes, even though I love the stories.
  • In general, I don’t care about the personal defects, craziness or silliness of artists: I separate the art from them. Hard to do with Alice Walker sometimes.
  • The Best Sci-Fi

    Friday, July 8th, 2011

    I just stumbled upon this list, compiled last year, of the best 25 sci-fi/fantasy movies of all time. Considering that I just said that 2009 had four great entries into the genre, I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.

    (more…)

    IMDB Ratings

    Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

    When I talk about movies on this site, I usually reference the ratings I give them on IMDB. I thought I’d put up a post about how those ratings come about.

    Ratings tend to be personal. I’m trying to be objective but sometimes a great movie just doesn’t grab me and sometimes a modest movie does. I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that Citizen Kane is probably “better” than Lord of the Rings. So why do I rate the latter a 10 and the former a 9? Because I do, that’s why. Or to be blunt, because I would rather watch the latter than the former even though Citizen is a great movie and I’ve watched it many times.

    I tend to be kind of a harsh grader and have become harsher as I’ve gotten older. Many fine films end up with 7′s or 8′s which makes the few 10′s I give out look even more ridiculous. I’ve also been rating movies for 15 years and some inconsistencies have cropped up. So … sue me. When I mention a film on the blog, I’ll usually reconsider the rating. But I can’t promise to be consistent. Roger Ebert complains all the time about people wondering how he can rate movie X as four stars and movie Y as 3.5 stars. I didn’t understand why he did that until I started rating movies myself. Consistency is difficult and ultimately futile. We rate how we rate. Let IMDB toss the outliers.

    My general rule of thumb on IMDB ratings (with examples) is listed below.

    10 – Perfection in film. The list of films I have given a rating of 10 are: Das Boot, 2001, Apollo 13, Grave of the Fireflies, Lawrence of Arabia, Master and Commander, Psycho, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ran, Schindler’s List, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Lord of the Rings. Yeah, that’s a pretty “guy”-oriented list. I have testicles.

    9 – Should be seen by everyone. I probably own it on DVD. This gets more interesting. A “10″ rating means something to me. “9″ ratings are where you will find the more traditional great movies, from the wonderful World of Apu to the touching Before Sunrise to the hilarious Blazing Saddles to Branagh’s fantastic Hamlet to the wonderfully weird City of Lost Children to the erotic Sex and Lucia to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

    8 – Very good, if you’re into that sort of thing. Probably own it on DVD. A lot of great movies end up here too if they don’t stick in my brain. You’ll see almost all of the top movies of any year end up as 8′s. A few random examples: Grizzly Man, Henry V, Kingdom of Heaven, North by Northwest, Lust Caution, The X-files movie, Yojimbo.

    7 – Worth watching. If I had infinite money, I might have a copy. This is probably where the bulk of films I watch end up. Here or 8. I don’t have much time for movies and usually don’t bother with things I don’t think I’ll like. This unfortunately means I miss out on the occasional surprise. But … I figure by the time Abby is off to college, I can catch up by having them beamed directly into my brain. Random examples: Bridget Jones’ Diary, High Fidelity, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sideways (yeah, I gave it a 7. I know everyone loves it. I merely liked it, mostly because I like Paul Giamatti.)

    6 – If I’m flipping channels and see this, I’ll stop and watch. Probably has some decent parts. Random examples: Chicago, Lolita, Transformers, Uncle Buck.

    5 – If I’m watching something else and this comes on and I can’t reach the remote… Examples: Lost in Space, Resident Evil, numerous pointless sequels.

    4 – I’ll make sure to change channel if this comes on. Addicted to Love, Sleeping with the Enemy, Supergirl. Out of Africa shows up here too. That can’t be right and it isn’t. My only memory of this film is watching it when I was 13 and being bored to hell. I have to watch it again. But this is where films start showing up that I dislike for specific reasons. Addicted to Love‘s astronomically ridiculous opening sequence, Charlie’s Angels over-the-top bullshit, The Life of David Gale’s absurd plot, Erin Brockovich’s glorification of lawsuits and under-carpet-sweeping of her deceptions.

    3 – I will risk bodily injury to change the channel. There are few movies that I’ve watched enough of to get here. Dirty Dancing is here but almost certainly doesn’t deserve to be. It’s just that my sister watched it endlessly and I can’t stand the thought of it. Jerry Maguire is a popular movie that I despise. Hannibal was an absolutely revolting movie that had no qualities to redeem its endless series of shocks. Serendipity, despite being liked by my wife and starring two of my favorite actors, just rubbed me the wrong way.

    2 – I will throw something at the TV, hoping to smash it to pieces as this film has befouled the TV by its very presence. Here are the movies I have rated a 2: 3 Men and a Baby, Battlefield Earth, Death Becomes Her, Hello Again, Shining Through, Teen Wolf. I could write a whole post on those movies. 3 Men, like Jerry Maguire, is rated lower than it deserves because so many people liked it and tried to convince me it was good. Nothing will make me hate a film more than being told I should like it when I clearly don’t. Battlefield Earth is rated low, but I’ve actually watched it more than once because it’s in the “so bad it’s good” territory. At least, it is when you’ve had enough to drink. Shining Through is an epic miscalculation; I laughed while watching it. Hello Again and Teen Wolf I actually saw in theaters as a kid, although I’ll be damned if I know why. There’s nothing worse than forcing yourself to sit through a movie because you’ve paid for it. Nowadays, I understand the concept of sunk costs and would walk out, even if it meant sitting on a corner for two hours waiting for my mom to pick me up … late as usual. And Death Becomes Her? I never thought I could despise a film with Isabella Rosselini in it, but there you go. I’ll never forget the critic in the Carletonian who said that the only reason to see this movie at the campus theater was because it was free. He was wrong. Two hours of your life is worth something. You could get drunk in two hours. You could get laid in two hours. No piece of shit movie is worth two hours.

    1 – I would not show this to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. No movie gets this rating, thankfully.

    Anyway, now I have this up for reference. Time to write some more about actual movies.

    The Shakespeare Project: Measure for Measure

    Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

    but man, proud man! Dress’d in a little brief authority,– most ignorant of what he’s most assured, His glassy essence, — like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make he angels weep; who with our spleens; Would all themselves laugh mortal.

    One of the reasons I started this was to find plays I was unfamiliar with but would enjoy. Measure for Measure is definitely one. It doesn’t reach the heights that Shakespeare is capable of and the humor isn’t very strong. But one of the advantages of being a “problem play” is that it has a large share of drama that works well. The confrontation between Angelo and Isabella, from the above quote is drawn, is one of the better parts as is the subsequent scene in which Claudio eventually asks his sister to sleep with Antonio for his life. The plot ties together a little too neatly in the end, sharing a narrative trick with All’s Well so that everyone ends up married. And the Duke ex Machina ending drags out a bit.

    But, as always with Shakespeare, it’s how you get there that’s the fun part. Antonio, in particular, is a good villain — the archetypal small man who should never be given even a modicum of power. (It’s nice to know that hypocrisy from hyper-moralistic politicians is nothing new.) It’s a pity that he has to be spared to fit in with the comedy.

    Next Up: The Comedy of Errors

    Friday Linkorama

    Friday, July 1st, 2011
  • All of these are insane (and possibly fictional).
  • All of these are awesome.
  • This is incredible.
  • This is a scary story. Man beats snot out of prostitute, claims he was sleep-walking, court buys it. It’s scary either way. Either he got away with a violent assault or he was capable of carrying one out when he was asleep (which experts say can happen extremely rarely). Automatism freaks me out something major.