Neal Stephenson's Anathem

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a longtime Neal Stephenson fan. I've read nearly every book he's published, (sorry, The Cobweb), and excepting his early books The Big U and Zodiac, I've read them in the order they were published. So I've been attuned to his growth as a writer as he went from Snow Crash to The Diamond Age to Cryptonomicon to The Baroque Cycle. While this last one -- being a three volume, 2,700 page historical fiction epic about scientists in the late 17th century -- let down many of his sci-fi fanboys, it is probably my favorite work of his, combining interesting ideas and historical facts with swashbuckling adventure and his best prose to date. (You can read my review of it in the Harvard Law Record archives.)

Anathem, his latest novel and clocking in at 900 pages, is similar to his pre-Cryptonomicon work -- it has fascinating speculative ideas but there's also a slight but noticeable decline in his writing craft. There's something about his historical writing that improves his prose -- perhaps it's the Charles Dickens influence. And without giving away any spoilers, I'll mention another problem that Anathem struggles with and sometimes conquers that I'll call the "Slow Learner" problem, after Thomas Pynchon's introductory essay to his short story collection of the same name.

In the essay, the overly humble Pynchon criticizes some of his early short stories for a mistaken sense of priorities:

It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.

He was talking partially about his famous story "Entropy", where the characters at a party act as a representation of the third law of thermodynamics. I actually think that Stephenson was fully aware of this issue while crafting Anathem, and the book steers mostly clear of it by avoiding the metaphorical approach, but I do think that the last third of the book sometimes puts its philosophical ideas above structure and character. (I think this is partially why the New York Times reviewer says he isn't sure Anathem is a proper novel.)

Let me be clear: I hold Neal Stephenson to a high standard, and there are only a handful of writers who I could read a 900-page book by and be constantly entertained and intellectually stimulated. But what it meant for me is that, in the end, I had less fun exploring his wild ideas because they weren't fully earned, whereas here is what I wrote four years ago about the second volume of The Baroque Cycle:

[The Confusion] is Stephenson at his finest, intermixing swashbuckling and piracy with surprisingly engaging digressions on such things as the antiquated timber trade centered in Lyon, France.

The good news is that Stephenson at his finest is to be found in Anathem, but it's mostly in the first third. While the beginning of the book is slow to start due to the heavy load of a made-up vocabulary, much of the fun is learning about the "maths" of the fictional world of Arbre. (If you're interested in details, try the NYT review I linked to above.) The experience of reading this is a lot like a Harry Potter story starring philosophy graduate students. Indeed, in one of his recent interviews, Stephenson explicitly cites Harry Potter as a reason why he thinks readers are comfortable enough with made-up words to take on his latest.

If you're already a fan of Stephenson, then you'll likely enjoy Anathem despite its shortcomings. If not, I highly recommend you start with Cryptonomicon -- if you like what you see there, you'll eventually make it to the philosophically (and sociologically) fascinating ideas of Anathem.

Wed, 10/22/2008 - 11:42am

Tarsem's The Fall

The Fall
The Fall The Fall

Tarsem is known for his visuals, and indeed it was the trailer for The Fall that convinced to go see it on the big screen, despite my dislike of his first and only other film, The Cell, which was all style over substance. But I had read that The Fall was a labor of love that Tarsem had been working on for over a decade, and that the images were in service of a greater story. This is both true and untrue.

It's true in the sense that it is a very intelligent film that happens to have beautiful visuals. It's untrue in the sense that much of the time the beautiful visuals are clearly arbitrary, based on beautiful locations Tarsem happened upon while shooting commercials all over the world. But The Fall is meant to be a fictional story, not a sequel to Baraka (which is already in production anyway), and so I must evaluate it on those terms. And in that regard, The Fall is a qualified success as well, except for some pacing and structural problems that sometimes made me an impatient viewer.

Set in the 1930's, the story is sort of a mix of The Wizard of Oz and Pan's Labryinth, about a young immigrant girl (Catinca Untaru) convalescing in a Southern California hospital. She befriends a stuntman (Lee Pace) who was paralyzed in an on-set accident, and who begins to tell her a fantastical story about five heroes who band together to fight their mutual enemy, Governor Odious.

For reasons that are somewhat essential to the plot, the story is disorganized and capricious (e.g., Charles Darwin teaming up with a stereotyped Italian explosives expert and an ex-slave), which while consistent with the overall theme, leads to those pacing problems I mentioned above. The focus of the film is partly on how an intelligent young child with a limited grasp of English interpret stories in her mind, incorporating real elements in her life, and often misinterpreting basic elements (like imagining an Indian who lost his wigwam and "squaw" as the turbaned type from a land of grand palaces). And it's partly about how the story is able to affect and sometimes manipulate the little girl, to whom who lives and dies in the story actually matters.

The premise of the film is responsible both for its good and not-so-good qualities, yet in the week or so since I saw the film, the not-so-good qualities have declined in importance and my opinion of the film has improved.

One last thing I enjoyed: The Fall is tangentially about early Hollywood filmmaking, and Tarsem includes two great montages in the film, one about limb amputations, and the other about falling stuntmen. I hereby nominate Tarsem to be the montage editor of the next Academy Awards ceremony.

Tue, 06/24/2008 - 12:26pm

Play Time and 70mm

Play Time
Play Time Play Time

A brief recommendation. This weekend, I saw Jacques Tati's Play Time for the first time. (Alas, not on the big screen in 70mm, but the Criterion DVD.) Despite being a two-hour movie without a traditional plot and with Altmanesque dialog mixed into the background noise, I was continually entertained by its endless inventiveness, stark cinematography, carefully choreographed structure, and its humor, both slapstick and subtle. Not having seen any Tati before, my reference points for the film would be Michel Gondry and Terry Gilliam mixed with The Sims. The whole film is like a socially critical Rube Goldberg device designed to beautifully break down.

It also reminded me of the existence of 70mm film in general, which I haven't thought of in awhile due to my living in 70mm-free Nevada and to its replacement in mainstream theaters by IMAX. Let alone that no major film has been shot fully in 70mm since 1996 (Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, and it was actually 65mm). But I remember fondly seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia -- in Hartford and Boston, respectively -- in all of their 70mm glory. I hope I get the chance to catch Play Time projected in 70mm, as its wide shots filled with multitudes of people demand detailed viewing.

Sun, 04/06/2008 - 8:58pm

Review: Everybody Loves Hypnotoad

All Hail the Hypnotoad

Yesterday, Everybody Loves Hypnotoad was released on DVD. The TV show -- produced, written, and directed by the Hypnotoad, and starring the same -- is a hilarious romp that follows the ins-and-outs of the Hypnotoad's daily life. As a viewer, I was fully captivated by the show, except during the brief establishing shots (a suburban house; a Seinfeldian diner) and the commercial breaks -- for some reason those scenes failed to hold my attention.

The DVD includes one full 22-minute episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, and features a flashback sequences and even some bloopers. It also includes some DVD "extras," such as a 90-minute time-travelling episode of Futurama, which was of some interest.

All Hail the Hypnotoad!

Wed, 11/28/2007 - 2:21pm

John from Cincinnati: Season One

John from Cincinnati

Last night, John from Cincinnati wrapped up its first (and last?) season on HBO. I'm still not entirely sure what to think of it -- I often felt distanced from the show due to its artifice and its love/hate relationship with verisimilitude; on the other hand, I was constantly entertained by its oddness and engaged by its rich intratextuality. For instance, an insignificant line of dialogue from an earlier episode often would be repeated many episodes later, perhaps with a slight modification, to enhance a comic or mystifying moment. These connections are not meant to be a wink towards the viewer: they are essential to the major themes of the show.

What are those major themes? I'm not sure I'm equipped to discuss them here with sufficient eloquence, but these two essays about the last two episodes, respectively, get close to the heart of things, I think. A quote from the second essay:

I think the show is largely centered around an examination of what it would be like if Jesus came to Earth today, and using that framework, it would make sense John would use a major corporation to spread his message. He converts his disciples, and by putting his logo on everything, he will help to spread the message.

That is indeed the most obvious explanation, although there's no reason to believe that there's any connection to Jesus, or Christianity in general. The way that the car dealer in the final episode talks to John ("You're off-line now, Country.") conjures elements of science-fiction more than any traditional notion of religion. The entire text of the dealer's scene can be found at HBO's "Inside the Episode" website section, where it's described by one of the show's writers as "probably the most important puzzle-solving moment of the season."

It's clear that JFC has an intricate design, and recent hints of global implications (John talking about "towelheads" and 9/11/14) -- in addition to David Milch's unique brand of dialogue and character development -- make me curious enough to want to look forward to the second season, if there is one. But while I know that Milch is a sort of genius, I can't help thinking that there's something off about this show -- that perhaps in its struggle in being both profound and entertaining, it falls short on both accounts.

Mon, 08/13/2007 - 10:23am



I haven't been entertained like I was watching Grindhouse last night since my college film series days, when my friends and I were the ones physically attaching trailers and shorts to reels of film.

What Grindhouse represented to me, beside sheer cinematic joy, was the promise it has in this age of home theaters and the cinematic decline: not as a 70's throwback to the good old days of single-screen movie house (which I rarely ever experienced anyway during my 80's childhood), but as a trendsetter of what the cinema must become: a packaged experience. I will never grow tired of viewing conventional movies on the big screen, perhaps for generational reasons, but it's becoming clear that the technological benefits are no longer exclusively available at the multiplex. James Cameron, who's next feature film will use advanced 3-D project, is aware of this, and the rapid construction of IMAX theaters is a testament to the pushing of boundaries.

In Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are packaging cinema in another way -- both with nostalgia and with film-geek-friendliness. The fake trailers are hilarious, and their pacing and narration are spot on. Various oddities are spliced in. The movies themselves are a mish-mash of old B-movies and horror films: Rodriguez's with a strong John Carpenter and Dario Argento element, Tarantino's with old-school car porn films that I'm actually not well versed in (but hey, at least I've seen Bullitt) -- and a bit of 2006's The Descent as well. They're both over-the-top and ridiculous -- Rodriguez's more so -- but pretty much entertaining the whole way through. When I spotted the couple in the row ahead of me engaging in a brief spat of oral sex, I was less disgusted than I expected, perhaps because it was fitting with what was happening on-screen.

But if my film-geek hopes here are too optimistic, and Grindhouse turns out to be the rare packaged experience, so be it. Never has spending over three hours in a modern multiplex been so fun.

Sun, 04/08/2007 - 1:43pm

Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day

Against the Day's cover

Not every book I read, movie I watch, or album I listen to gets a write-up on the blog. I've been needled several times in the past for not commenting on a media object of interest, and my usual reply is something like: I'm not a professional critic -- I write about things when I have something in particular to say about them.

Which is where Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day comes in. I've spent almost three months, in spurts, reading a 1,085 page novel that covers a time period ranging from the Chicago World's Fair in 1892 to just after World War I. So I should having something interesting to say about it -- a recommendation, maybe, or a summation of Pynchon's ambitious themes. But I don't have either of those things, or at least not in any way that would lead to a cohesive post -- and yet I can't just let those three months of reading go unremarked, as if Pynchon's latest was merely another comedy in my Netflix queue.

And so I feel obliged, perhaps even compelled, to throw up some desultory comments, hoping that I've managed to toss these last few months of reading a bone or two.

Let's start with that word: desultory. Many of the tepid/negative reviews of AtD I've read criticize it for being haphazard, too unstructured, Pynchon going too far with his allusions, obscure languages, cast of hundreds, lists of terms of art, etc. Those same reviews often then go on to say that while Gravity's Rainbow shares many of the same qualities, it did in service of the theme and the plot, with far more transcendent prose. I'm not attributing the above to any particular source -- a la Fox News -- but look around and you'll find these thoughts.

So: are these criticisms valid? Maybe -- it would be hard to say without me rereading GR again, especially since I'd be more prepared to read it a second time around. But when I first read GR, I was frequently amused, often surprised by beautifully clear passages, and constantly struggling to keep up with what was going on, who was who, and what the hell all the German phrases meant. While reading AtD, I was far more consistently entertained, encountered perhaps an equal amount of beautiful prose, but very rarely struggled with what was going on.

Was this because AtD is a simpler novel than GR? Was I just more comfortable with the subject matter? Am I just a better reader now, six years after I read GR? I gained a little insight into this when I ran into one of the harder parts of AtD to read through, wherein one of the main characters is getting involved with a spy network connected to the Austrian government and its interests in Turkey and the Balkans. Pynchon kept on throwing German words and extremely specific references to Vienna locales at the reader, and I kept on stumbling.

But then this subplot shifted to Venice, where much of the novel takes place, and suddenly I was on top of and enjoying the very same things that were previously keeping me back. I got puns involving the Italian language, and could picture with great vividness the narrated events in my mind. Well, duh. I've been to Venice, and I know quite a bit of the Italian language; I've never been to Austria and the German language might as well be Greek to me. Restating the obvious: if you're familiar with what Pynchon is writing about, it's tremendously insightful and fun; if you're not, it can be a struggle.

After I read GR, I spent several hours online reading about rocket technology, World War II, and Continental geography, all of which helped clarify much of what I had read. I can't remember why I waited until after I had finished the novel to do this, because it clearly would've made for a better reading experience if I had done it beforehand and during. Perhaps it's because Wikipedia wasn't fully realized at the time. AtD, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience. If I didn't understand an important allusion, I would read up on it on Wikipedia or on the AtD wiki.

Additionally, the subject matter of AtD was more familiar to me, probably because, unlike GR, AtD is a contemporary novel. Pynchon has always been influenced by pop culture, and the following cultural artifacts, mostly known to me in one way or the other, all were helpful for understanding allusions in AtD:

  • Tetris
  • anime
  • steampunk/the Final Fantasy video games/Jules Verne
  • The Prestige by Christopher Priest (a major influence, I think)
  • the works of Howard Zinn
  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
  • mathematics
  • photography/cinema

When it comes down to it, Against the Day is a fantasy/science-fiction novel in the guise of historical fiction. But it's also about the kinds of people who, in various different ways, live railing against authority, against the Establishment, and yes, against the Day -- and while they sometimes succeed on the micro scale, generally they fail on the macro scale, a byproduct of corporations, nation states, governments, and simple human nature. Pynchon is never preachy about these things, but you won't want to make it through the book if you're not inherently sympathetic towards those who thrive in the counter-culture, towards those who shake things up.

It's a cliché to defend a big and messy novel by pointing to the world and saying: "But look, the world is big and messy." But it's never been truer here. No one knows for sure how to live in the world but not of it, and anyway, why would one necessarily want to do that? Civilization is plagued by many problems, but who's to say whether it's better to work within or outside the system to solve them? Pynchon has clearly been thinking about this predicament for a long time, and AtD may be his last attempt to work out an answer. And it succeeds on the micro scale, and fails on the macro scale -- which might be all Pynchon was hoping for.

Sun, 02/18/2007 - 6:32pm

Tears of the Black Tiger

Tears of the Black Tiger

In late summer 2001, my brother and I went to a movie we had never heard of while vacationing in Dublin. The movie, called Tears of the Black Tiger, turned out to be a Thai western notable for its hypersaturated colors and its Tarantino-esque editing. I've wondered why the movie, which I enjoyed greatly, never made it stateside, and I hadn't thought of it for a few years until I saw this Slate review published on Friday.

Turns out that Miramax bought the rights and sat on it for over five years, evidently hesitant about its ending (at least according to Wikipedia). Magnolia Pictures has bought the rights from Miramax, and is releasing the movie in limited release for several months in early 2007 -- which probably means we can expect a U.S. DVD release by the end of the year. In truth, I can't really remember many details about the film, but my memory of the experience is sufficient for me to search out a screening or wait for the DVD and watch it once again.

Mon, 01/15/2007 - 12:15am

Children of Men

Children of Men

While Children of Men is by no means flawless, it is one of the few films I've seen in from 2006 that is clearly the product of a masterful director -- Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón.1 I loved Y tu mamá también and find his Harry Potter entry to be the best so far in the series, but with Children of Men he enters the territory of classic sci-fi films such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys: the near-future dystopia.

The dystopic premise -- a world where for unknown reasons no child has been born in 18 years and where only Britain has maintained a semblance of civilization as we know it now by means of a fascist and sometimes genocidal government -- is handled with such realism that it's almost alarming. We're not talking here about robot armies or advanced Big Brother technologies; these are broken versions of the very political situations we read about every day, the logical extension of terrorism and insurrection when precipitated by an apocalyptic disease. I won't say more about this dystopic world, except to say that the story both flourishes and, in the end, finds its flaws in how the main characters live in it.

But the premise is not where I found Cuarón's masterful direction, because in many ways Children of Men is actually an action/war film. The two lengthy single-shot sequences2 have already been much ballyhooed by critics, but I can only corroborate what's already been said -- these sequences aren't just an opportunity for Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to show off, but actually add to the suspense of the action on screen. Much of the film, and especially in these sequences, comes off as balletic, with each gunshot, explosion, Clive Owen expression, spoken line, and swing of the camera precisely enacted as in the effects of a large-scale Broadway show.

It may sound contrived here, but I can only say that this technique actually enhances the realism of the scene, as opposed to the effect of the quick-cutting approach used so bluntly by most action and war films of our day. The closest comparison I can come up with is the mid-career work of Francis Ford Coppola, especially the electric first half of Apocalypse Now3 and his early-80's flop, the Las Vegas musical One from the Heart.4 Cuarón really is that talented.

I'd like to end with a brief mention of one of the most important building blocks for making true cinema: the car chase. Children of Men has an incredibly suspenseful car chase ranking high up with the best, and I don't think anything ever goes more than 10 miles per hour. It's the anti-Speed, and only a truly skilled director could make them this fun without resorting to pretty cars, fast cuts, and flame-riddled explosions.

Children of Men is one of the best films of 2006, and I can't wait to see what Cuarón does next.


1 The others were lesser films, relative to their respective pantheons, by Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky, and Spike Lee's excellent Katrina documentary. (return)

2 Including a ten-minute battle involving tanks, bombs, soldiers, and a chase sequence where, yes, the shot never once cuts. (return)

3 Which in my book, contains some of the finest cinematic direction in film history. (return)

4 Which is an incredible technical feat -- Coppola basically built downtown Las Vegas on a soundstage with an obsessively constructed lighting design -- but fails on so many other levels. (return)

Mon, 01/08/2007 - 11:24am

The Ending of The Fountain

The Fountain

Expect to see spoilers below:

I went in to The Fountain expecting a blow-your-mind thinkfilm in the manner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but got a small and precise film instead. This isn't a bad thing -- it's just not what I expected. (Although visually the movie was large in scope and quite beautiful.) Death is such a huge subject to tackle, and rather than go for a Babel/Traffic/Syriana-type story -- all the rage these days -- covering fear of Death in all its permutations, or even for a symbolic approach like Bergman's masterpiece The Seventh Seal, director Darren Aronofsky strips down the philosophical side of things and simply observes how two or three basic characters accept, deny, fight against, and embrace Death. As far as that goes, The Fountain is a minor accomplishment.

In the Las Vegas Weekly, local reviewer Josh Bell called The Fountain a "feature-length fortune cookie" -- peel back some of the dismissive contempt and I might agree. But take this indelible (and inedible) quote from the philosopher Spinoza, whose outlook on death as summarized by Bertrand Russell I find to be quite useful: "A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life." Russell then goes on to say:

It is only death in general that should be so treated; death of any particular disease should, if possible, be averted by submitting to medical care. What should, even in this case, be avoided, is a certain kind of anxiety or terror; the necessary measures should be taken calmly, and our thoughts should, as far as possible, be then directed to other matters. The same considerations apply to all other purely personal misfortunes.

What's tragic about The Fountain is that Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) directs his thoughts toward death entirely for hundreds of years (if you accept the sci-fi interpretation of the film, which Aronofsky seems to have intended), and only after a final, desperate moment does he assume the lotus position and embrace death. His wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz), on the other hand, has no such problems and is a Spinoza follower all the way. Her problem is with convincing her husband to feel the same way, and her eponymous fable about the conquistador Tomas is her modus operandi. A simple morality play, perhaps, and maybe its message sounds clichéd in the telling, but as David Foster Wallace is always at pains to make clear, that shouldn't take away from its veracity nor its sincerity.

Mon, 12/11/2006 - 3:40pm

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Cormac McCarthy - The Road

I tend to enjoy literature written in so-called "brain voices," where the reader is burrowing into the thoughts of the author or an authorial-like presence, examples of which vary greatly and include Infinite Jest, Lolita, and the works of Haruki Murakami. Contrast that to realistic and in-the-moment descriptive prose, a closer relative to poetry and which the above examples certainly indulge in at moments, but which is in the domain of writers such as Cormac McCarthy, often cited as one of the best American novelists, and author of The Road, a short post-apocalyptic novel that I have just finished. (The only other McCarthy that I have read is All the Pretty Horses; Blood Meridian and maybe Suttree is on my list.)

While the post-apocalyptic genre is often characterized by futuristic technology, makeshift communes, and roving gangs a la Mad Max, The Road sticks to the basic survivalist story of a man and his young son, traveling down a road in search of the next unrifled store of non-perishables. The apocalyptic event has long passed, the world is a constant ashen gray, all plants and animals are pretty much dead along with most humans, and those remaining are strictly concerned with finding their next meal, whether it be canned goods or man foods. The latter cannibalistic types are the source of the most gruesome parts of the book, both in visceral content and in its twisted inventiveness -- but always mercilessly realistic. McCarthy's prose is simple and descriptive, wavering between Hemingway and Faulkner, with the actions of the man and the boy mixed with descriptions like:

In the field the dead sedge was drifted nearly out of sight and the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires and the silence was breathless.

What was most intriguing to me about The Road as a post-apocalyptic novel is that it is both incredibly pessimistic and persistently optimistic -- in that mankind is near inevitable extinction and organic matter is near exhaustion, yet the man and the boy keep on managing to find food without giving up or resorting to cruelty. Still, at times the optimism is shrouded and the reader, at least in my case, can only think of how poorly they would manage in such a terrible world. You're not going to find out how civilization ends in The Road, nor will you find any 12 Monkeys-esque ingenuity, but you will read a gritty and compelling take on how goodness can limp through even the worst of all worlds.

But back to brain voices: on Tuesday I will begin to go Against the Day.

Sun, 11/19/2006 - 4:09pm

Joanna Newsom's Ys


Briefly: Joanna Newsom's second album Ys has to be one of my favorite albums of the year. On first listen, it's hard to get past the aimless feel of a 60's folk album more concerned with poetry than music, and the length of the tracks (only five in 56 minutes) doesn't help with that impression. But the more I listen to it, the more I'm infected by the vocal melody, the orchestral countermelodies, Newsom's always great harp composition, and even the playful lyrics. (Including a track called "Monkey & Bear." Yes, please.) I liked The Milk-Eyed Mender, her first album, but sometimes the squeak factor in her vocals were a little high. Here she tones it down, and has probably made the most musically accomplished album of the year.

Track: Monkey & Bear (mp3)

Sat, 11/04/2006 - 11:58am

The ending of The Prestige

The Prestige

Like my post about The Illusionist a few weeks ago, I'm about to reveal the ending of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading now.

If The Illusionist and The Prestige are rival magicians, then the latter is Ricky Jay and the former is David Copperfield. This analogy holds in several ways, but the most relevant is that The Prestige is the better movie. I will admit up front that part of what makes The Prestige so enjoyable is how it compares to The Illusionist, but it also is engaging and fun in its own right. But like I did with The Illusionist, I'm going to put aside all comments about plot, character, and cinematography (all entertaining in both films to various degrees) and just talk about how The Prestige approaches magic on film.

Here are two things I said about The Illusionist:

1) [M]agicians, as in the real-life profession kind, probably wouldn’t like this movie.

2) The fact that the “real” magic in the movie wasn’t grounded in the actual craft destroyed my suspension of disbelief.

In both cases, I believe the opposite to be true in The Prestige. Let's start with the first quote.

I don't know any magicians personally, but I think they would enjoy watching this film. Unlike The Illusionist, which solely relied on special effects to depict its most complex magic tricks, The Prestige is all about the mechanics of the tricks. The fun of the movie is trying to guess how the two rival magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman respectively, perform their respective flagship tricks where, in both cases, a man is instantly transported across a stage. In the meantime, and entertainingly, the rival magicians are constantly showing up at each other's shows in disguise and disrupting the other's tricks, often in a humorously cruel and physically harmful manner.

The Illusionist was based on one "magic" trick that was more of a Shyamalanian twist ending; The Prestige bases its two big tricks on the actual craft magicians use, making it more fun to puzzle out during the film. Even though I figured out how the two Transporting Man tricks were done well before the reveal at the end of the film, it didn't matter because 1) it made sense in the logic of the film; 2) it didn't remove the tension from the plot; and 3) I wasn't entirely sure about one of the tricks until it was explicitly revealed, since it relied on a bit of science-fiction.

Before I move on to the second quote, let me discuss the operation of the two tricks. The secret to Borden's Human Transporter is grounded in the mundane -- throughout the entire movie, we are led to believe that there is only one magician, but in fact Borden has an identical twin. The twins have been sharing wives, mistresses, dismembered fingers, etc. all their lives, alternately playing Borden and disguising himself as his assistant Fallon. Their entire lives are essentially built around the performance of the Human Transporter trick. Angier's trick is grounded in science-fiction: he hires Nikola Tesla (pictured above, played by David Bowie) to devise a machine for him that creates exact duplicates of whatever is placed in the machine. Thus, every night Angier performs his trick, he creates an exact duplicate of himself which he kills off beneath the stage where blind stagemen are staffing the apparati, unaware of the nightly massacre.

Which brings us to the second quote. In The Illusionist, I was annoyed at how I had to suspend disbelief that the computer effects I was seeing were actually mundane magic tricks. I far preferred suspending my disbelief in The Prestige to believe that Nikola Tesla could have invented a matter duplication machine. What made this especially believable and interesting is that 1) Tesla was indeed a scientific genius; 2) he did in fact spend time in Colorado Springs working on ideas that the scientific community found to be bizzare; 3) he had fascinating visions of the future, such that all electricity would be based on wireless energy; and 4) the machine that Tesla creates in the film leads to all sorts of interesting philisophical problems. While his actual science came nowhere near creating a matter duplication machine, it was real enough to work within the context of the film. Plus, the addition of Tesla allowed his real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison to serve as a foil to the magicians' rivalry. Lastly, it says something interesting about the tenuous relationship between magic and science, perhaps embodied in the real world by Ricky Jay and in the film by the engineer Cutter, played by Michael Caine.

The Prestige is by no means a great film, but I thoroughly enjoyed deconstructing the tricks as the film progressed. If the reveal had only been the trick behind Borden's Transporter, it would've been mere Shyamalan. Instead, with the addition of Angier's soul-selling foray into science fiction, it climbs to a higher plane. A 2006 magician movie that David Mamet could be proud of.

Last minute thought: There is one hiccup in the set-up of the tricks in the film that a quick visit to the IMDB message boards brought up. Did Borden grow up with a twin all his life, or did he use another version of Tesla's machine to create his twin? I'm inclined to go with the former, since Bale is considered in the film to be the more ethical magician, but that does lead to a coincidence involving Tesla. If it's the latter, then why did Borden not know how Angier performed his trick? Any thoughts?

Last second thought: Continuing to read through the IMDB comments, I'm satisified with my original theory. Borden used Tesla to create a machine purely for show, whereas Angier convinced him to take the morally unsound step to make the actual duplication device. A coincidence, yes, but when it comes to Tesla, a reasonable one.

Sun, 10/22/2006 - 12:16pm

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

I recently finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a novel split into six interlocking stories that spans from a 19th-century maritime adventure to a near- and post-apocalyptic sci-fi future. There's much to like about the book, but since I'm such a structure-fiend I'll mostly stick with a surface description of the layout.

The book is designed to be read in the form of a queue stack: first-in, first-out last-out. I.e., the book starts with the first story, which is interrupted by the second story, which is interrupted by the third story, until we get to the complete sixth story, which is then followed by the conclusion to the fifth story, which is followed by the end of the fourth story, until the book ends with the conclusion of the first story. It looks sort of like this:

[A [B [C [D [E [F] E] D] C] B] A]

While the six stories vary greatly in place, time, genre, and prose (Melville-like, Victorian novel, pulp fiction, Hollywood movie, sci-fi, Faulkner sci-fi), they are of course linked thematically and narratively. So the diary from the first story is found by the composer in the second story whose letters are sent to a protagonist in the third story which is a novel being read by a publisher in the fourth story, and so on. The novel does its best to logically explain the start and end of each segment to the activities of the characters in the neighboring stories.

While I can't say Mitchell is a master of all the genres he writes in here, it is the case that the disappointment I had at the beginnning of a new segment turned into compelling interest by the time the next rolled around, until I was juggling five cliffhangers in my mind during the sixth and central story. The cliffhangers unwind methodically, rationally, and almost too satisfyingly, but the end result is a well-written novel for the impatient reader.

There's much to say about the characters, themes, and prose but instead I'll point you to The Guardian's rave review and The New York Times tepid review and say that my opinions lie somewhere in between.

Fri, 10/06/2006 - 9:24am

La Dolce Vita

La Dolce Vita

I recently saw La Dolce Vita for the second time, my first viewing being 10 years ago as a high school student. It's a masterful movie, but just as Fellini was both exasperated and bored with the decadent culture it portrays, I as the viewer couldn't help growing numb when being led into yet another soulless party, even while I was appreciating Fellini's ability to perfectly capture the prolonged intoxication of the empty "sweet life."

Incidentally, La Dolce Vita was the subject of one of Roger Ebert's first movie reviews, published in The Daily Illini when he was a sophomore at UIUC. While it's a positive review, he clearly isn't under the impression that it's a "great" movie. Almost forty years later, and after many viewings including a frame-by-frame analysis, Ebert reviewed it again as part of his Great Movies series. In this second review it's clear that he believes it to be one of the greatest movies of all time, especially after his own disillusionment with "the sweet life" of Chicago in the 1970's. (A profile I linked to last year touches on this phase of his life.) Also worth a read is this analysis from the blog of the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA (my former place of residence) by someone who believes it to be the greatest film of all time.

I've never been much of a partier, but I happen to live in Las Vegas, one of the biggest party towns in the country. It seems to me that a modern reimagining of this film, set in Vegas or in hipster L.A, could be interesting in the hands of the right director. It wouldn't be a remake exactly, nor would it attempt to emulate Fellini, but it would capture whatever's behind the endless party pictures you find on Flickr or And no, Swingers isn't what I have in mind. There are some scenes in Boogie Nights that I think come very close to the mood I'm thinking of, but not in any way that I can identify with. Can anyone think of a contemporary movie out there that comes close to capturing the mood of La Dolce Vita, all while maintining its sense of morality?

Sun, 08/27/2006 - 7:13pm

Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke

Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke

I spent four hours on Monday and Tuesday watching Spike Lee's HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. I was on a road trip when Katrina hit a little less than a year ago, so I wasn't able to follow the developments of the crisis at the time. I didn't even learn of the levees breaking until I read the front page of a New York Times in Boulder, CO, more than two days after the hurricane hit.

Since I was able to keep up with the ongoing crisis only with occassional spurts of talk radio thereafter, I was most looking forward to the first half of Lee's documentary, which focused on the immediate days surrounding the hurricane's landing. But it turns out that that was the part of the documentary I was most informed about, due to my finally catching up with the 24/7 news coverage and magazine stories a week later. It was in fact the latter half of Lee's documentary that I found to be essential viewing, dealing with the long-term aftermatch of the hurricane. The ongoing struggles of individual families, the politics behind the rebuilding, and the historical/racial/social context of the entire tragedy are artfully intertwined in the last two acts.

Four hours is a long time to spend on a documentary, but I don't think any of you need to be convinced that the Katrina incident is one of the most revealing tragedies in recent American history. And the documentary isn't all elegaics. One more lighthearted segment follows, via home video, the backstory of the guy who infamously double-gutted the Vice President in front of the media with a strangely polite, "Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney." And as always, there's Lee's visual/aural jazz-inspired synthesis, made more the relevant by the New Orleans setting. If you have HBO, try to catch one of the many upcoming rebroadcasts; otherwise, consider putting it on your rental queue.

Thu, 08/24/2006 - 9:41am

Dostoevsky's Demons

With Demons on Sunday night becoming the fourth of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "great" novels that I have read,1 and the only one so far in my post-collegiate years, the significance and accomplishments of Dostoevsky are finally becoming manifest. What appealed to me about Dostoevsky from the very start, reading the first page of Crime and Punishment as a high school senior, was how he chiefly wrote about ideas and -isms and their tyrannical control over characters with whom I easily identified, presented both with empathy and with rebuke (the characters and the ideas). His plots are compelling, at times melodramatic and complex, and filled with a so-called "polyphony" of dialogue and story.

Dostoevsky intimately knew how ideas could inspire yet lead to danger, he himself being involved with the mostly harmless Petrashevsky Circle that, when shut down by the Russian government, led to Dostoevsky's mock execution and sentencing to four years of hard labor in Siberia. Demons is the most political Dostoevsky book I've read, and its story directly springs from these personal struggles with the seeds of Russian revolution. It is also incredibly prescient.

The story follows a rather parochial revolutionary group within an unnamed Russian town who is manipulated by Western-influenced tracts and a fiery leader obsessed with power and expediency to participate in nihilistic acts of upheaval and in a gruesome political assassination. Their story is, of course, buried under romantic drama, intergenerational strife, gossip, and philosophical digressions, but is mysteriously dependent on Stavrogin, an ambiguous but charismatic character who, it seems to me, only barely misses by circumstance and chance in becoming a Lenin figure. Note that the book was written in the early 1870's not too long after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and herein lies its prescience: Dosteovsky almost completely foresees the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century, and the terrible violence that followed.

What I really want to get at here, though, is that while it's clear that Dostoevsky was tempted by and struggled with the radicalism and atheism of his day, in the end he remained a strong traditionalist both politically and religiously, fearing the consequences of the Russian movements then in vogue. Since I know in hindsight that Dostoevsky's fears were to be realized after his death,2 I find myself celebrating his hesitant conservatism in late-19th century Russia to the same degree that I celebrate liberalism found in American literature during the same period.

But I also wonder how Dostoevsky would view the current battle of ideas in America,3 and here I think he would no longer be so fearful of liberal revolutionaries. Their ideas have nearly become co-opted into the mainstream, and where they haven't, their anger has been defrayed by venting on blogs, within film programs, and in alternative weeklies. He would merely laugh at their atheism, and more greatly fear the straying of mainstream religion from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. With the power of American politics in the hands of demagogues and a secretive oligarchy, I think he would either find himself bored with the far left4 or frightened by television populism and neoconservatism.

Incidentally, this was the first Dostoevsky translation I've read by the acclaimed husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The translation is fantastic, and has given me an excuse to soon reread The Brothers Karamazov. Apparently, there is a fascinating print-only New Yorker article out there called "The Translation Wars" (described here and here) that talks about the history of the translation of Russian novels. The article says that Pevear and Volokhonsky are working on a translation of War and Peace, and since I've never read any Tolstoy, I think I'll wait for their translation to start.5


1 The other novels I've read are Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and, naturally, The Brothers Karamazov. (return)

2 See the Russian Revolution, especially as described by William T. Vollmann in his "Defense of Class" chapter in Rising Up and Rising Down, and the mass genocides that took place under Stalin in the following decades. (return)

3 Although, as David Foster Wallace makes clear in his "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" essay collected in Consider the Lobster, it has sadly become nearly impossible to write anything approaching a Dostoevsky novel in recent years. (return)

4 Incidentally, I think this is why Vollmann has travelled so much out of America and into countries filled with war and strife -- he intellectually desired to find the violent and revolutionary side of America and found better luck elsewhere. This is also why his writings on American violence focus on modern militias, skinheads, or pre-Revolutionary history. (return)

5 And perhaps I'll throw on some Beirut, the perfect musical accompaniment to Russian literature, during the read. (return)

Mon, 06/26/2006 - 11:48pm

The Beatles LOVE

On Sunday, I caught a preview of Cirque du Soleil's fifth and newest addition to their Las Vegas stronghold of entertainment: The Beatles LOVE. This was my first Cirque du Soleil experience, aside from the occasional PBS glimpse, so my thoughts here cannot really be compared with other Cirque shows. Also keep in mind that there are several weeks left in the preview period, so what I saw may change.

So how was it? For starters, the George Martin mix was fantastic. Each seat had two speakers inside the headrest, so it was like listening to a surround sound remastering of much of The Beatles catalogue. The song selection in the mix was eclectic and close to ideal. To give you an idea: one scene started with "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and then smoothly segued into the hard-rock guitar melody at the end of "I Want You." The soundtrack was essentially a 90-minute long DJ mix, giving you "Hey Jude," "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Yesterday" but also "Octopus's Garden," "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Sun King." (Yes, the pastiche focused almost primarily on their mid- to late-period output.) Also notable was the occasional use of alternate takes and constructed dialogue based on the four's in-studio banter.

Continuing with the good: The sets, costumes, and lighting were top-notch, focusing on the trippy side of Beatles culture, along with late-60's British psychedelia. There was quite a bit of odd puppetry that reminded me of Shel Silverstein illustrations, like long gypsy trains and a phalanx of 20 shoes dancing (hard to explain).

The problem with the show was with what I thought beforehand as Cirque's strengths: the dancing and acrobatics. With the exception of two or three excellent set pieces, most of the dance sequences involved 15 or more people on stage and trapezes at once, doing their crazy shit all at the same time. And for some reason, the producers attempted to make the show "urban" by having many of those dancers crunking Krumping and breakdancing much of the time. I like to watch crunking Krumping as much as the next guy, but it was sort of incongruous with Beatles music. On the other hand, the great set pieces I referred to above involved roller skates, see-saws, and trampolines (not at the same time) and I loved every minute of it.

One last cool thing: at the end of the show, they projected a video of the four Beatles singing as an animated photomosaic (or, I guess, a videomosaic) where the image was made up of many little tiles, each of which was displaying animated snippets. A quick Google search shows that this is not quite new, but I had never seen one before.

Tue, 06/13/2006 - 9:12am

The New World


I caught The New World, Terrence Malick's latest film, this past weekend. I've seen two Malick films in the theater (this and The Thin Red Line) and in both instances several people walked out in the middle fustrated with being baited by a mainstream genre (war film, historical epic) only to be bored by Malick's pensive approach (long shots of nature, no bombastic score, poetic narration). I've also seen Badlands, but that was at home on DVD and I didn't walk out.

I found The New World fascinating, beautiful, and surpisingly calming for a film that I went in thinking would foreshadow the horrors of Native American genocide. But it doesn't spend time on that topic, because it never gets to that point in history. It certainly delves into the rocky relationship between the settlers and the "naturals," as they were called by them, but it's more about the possibilities that opened when two radically different cultures meet. This film is far more optimistic than, say, Nick Roeg's Walkabout, where the meeting of two foreign cultures leads to an explicit tragic end. Here it's unspoken, but nonetheless we as viewers are painfully aware of where things are going.

My only non-trivial fustration with Malick is his tendency to use laconic and overbearing narration during drawn out otherwise quiet scenes. But I love his use of cinematography, the natural sounds on the soundtrack, and the sparse but wisely used score of James Horner. It's the kind of score I think could've made Lord of the Rings a better trilogy.

Wed, 01/25/2006 - 11:53am
  • A harsh review of Steven Spielberg's Munich over at The New Republic. [Registration required, but use bugmenot, whynot?] I haven't seen the film, but this passage seems to capture the essence of Spielberg's work in the last decade:
    The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer...Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me?
    (1) #
  • An early review of Peter Jackson's King Kong. He calls it "jaw-droppingly brilliant" -- but then again, the British *do* overuse that adjective. I still have my doubts. I loved Lord of the Rings, but felt that Jackson made it too bombastic. (6) #



Syriana, a character-driven spy thriller about the political and financial machinations surrounding the international oil trade, is too taut for its own good. It's one of those movies where the filmmakers deliberately leave out information so that the viewer is aware of the conspiracy swarming around but can't quite figure out what it is and how each character is involved.

It reminded me of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which is in the same family as Syriana, except the 70's classic dealt with the [local] implications of a [water] scandal rather than Syriana's international/oil subject matter. But Chinatown, with its highly-respected script by Robert Towne, manages the conspiracy far more professionally, cloaking in it in the guise of film-noir with Jack Nicholson as the chief investigator.

Syriana instead takes the approach of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic -- no coincidence since Syriana's writer/director Steven Gaghan was a co-writer of Traffic -- following several seemingly disparate storylines and various characters of different nationality/class/profession all at once. This technique worked well in the sometimes overly didactic Traffic, but falls a little short here, mostly because of the difficulty cramming it all in during the 126 minute running time, 21 minutes shorter than that of Traffic. While the overall sense of the conspiracy is mostly clear by the end of the film, we're not entirely sure how we and each character got there.

But perhaps this is just one of those movies that demand a second viewing (like, say, the first Mission: Impossible, which Robert Towne also wrote). Certainly all the other ingredients of the film are great: the acting (with good performances from George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Alexander Siddig - yes, there are no major female roles), the photography, the plot (when figured out), the subject matter, etc. Yet, I still have this feeling that this movie should've been great and came very close, especially when challenging movies with politically relevant subject matters are so hard to come by, and even more so from a major studio.

Mon, 11/28/2005 - 11:33am