Country music (including but not limited to Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss, and its relationship to suicide) — Marxism — The war in Iraq — The case the British government made for the war in Iraq — Media coverage of the war in Iraq — Differences between British and American media coverage of the war in Iraq — Dead socialists (including the question of whether or not Paul Sweezy was in fact dead: he wasn’t when we began corresponding on the question, but later he was) — Favourite novels — University admissions — Boycotts of Israelis — Blog technology issues — The paradox of democracy — Paul “The Thinker” Richards — Defamation law — French headscarves laws — International rugby partisanship — New Zealand and whether it is a dull country — Amnesty International — Italian anti-war demonstrations — Christopher Hitchens — The precise distance from Boulder, CO to Birmingham, AL — My Normblog Profile — The number of Red Sox supporters who have Normblog profiles — Where the Wild Things Are — Bob Dylan — Favourite films —A Mighty Wind — Nashville — Joan Baez — George W. Bush — The Hutton Inquiry — Lucio Colletti — Why the film Life is Beautiful is so terrible — The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Mobile telephones — Cricket — The various ways in which my students used to pronounce the name “Geras” — Rock stars — Exam marking — Arnold Lobel and his Mouse Tales — The Butler report — The Campo de’ Fiori in Rome — Shakespeare plays — Obnoxious right-wing writers (including Mark Steyn and Andrew Bolt) — American airport security checks — Terrorist threats — Socialist Register — The 2004 US Presidential election — Baseball — Visiting Oxford — Thomas Hobbes — Roman libraries — Classical composers (especially Schubert) — Jokes about rational choice theorists — The Tour de France — Etienne Balibar — Favourite actors — The excellence of kittens (and, more generally, cats) — American street names — Wendy Cope — Footnotes in Capital — Umpiring — Passport applications — Margaret Thatcher’s resignation — Margaret Thatcher’s poetry — Jews for Justice for Palestinians — Chavez and anti-Semitism — Academic plagiarism — David Aaronovitch as marathon runner — x-RCP front organisations — Robert Wokler — Academic jobs — Musicals — Australia — The rubbish-collection regime in Oxford — Tony Judt — Whether or not the Euston Manifesto was part of a “common, hysterical defense of the Anglo-Dutch financial system, and their permanent right to loot the economies of the world” — American practices of memorialization on campus — Flooding in Oxford — The Beatles — Jerry Cohen’s valedictory lecture — The New Left Review — Loyalty oaths — A Dance to the Music of Time — Merton College, Oxford — Visiting Manchester — Critical opinions about America — Puzzles involving marbles — Traffic robots — The Beach Boys — Tony Blair’s relationship with God — Bernard-Henri Levy looking funny in photographs — Authorisations to use military force — John Stuart Mill on international intervention — The Eurovision Song Contest — Adam Smith — Nick Cohen’s views about torture — Alfred Hitchcock films — The thorny question of whether seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was on drugs — The problems of travelling between Oxford and Cambridge.
Biggest regret? In July 2004, Norm wrote, “Might you have an interest in watching a Test or some part of one with me?”, and I never took him up on the suggestion.
His final words of the correspondence, from the start of this month: “My own care from the NHS has been exemplary.”
It turns out that Slumdog Millionaire is a much more interesting film than I took it to be. Faced with cardboard-cutout characters and an implausible plot, I rather switched off and stopped enjoying myself. My former-teacher-and-current-colleague Bonnie Honig, on the other hand, started thinking instead about what it all had to say about democratic theory — and her splendid essay on Slumdog has just been published on the website of the Indian Express newspaper (albeit under a not-entirely-ideal title). So go over there and read it.
Frost / Nixon is quite fun, and bounces along, but there’s no point making films like this if you’re going to distort what actually happened as much as this one does, and for no terribly good reason, artistic or otherwise. I don’t think I was prepared for a film containing a depiction of a naked John Birt. Perhaps the poster should carry a warning. (“Warning: Contains Scenes Depicting a Naked John Birt”.) I wondered whether it was a problem that it’s impossible to watch Michael Sheen without thinking of Tony Blair, but I don’t think that it is. There is something of Blair in David Frost – the eagerness to suck up to the powerful, in particular – and so it becomes a useful association rather than an irritating distraction.
Slumdog Millionaire is a very bad film. I’m not sure what else to say. It wasn’t dreadful, but when I was trying to think of “films I’d seen in the cinema that were obviously worse”, the two that sprang to mind immediately were Ridicule and Life is Beautiful. Those two were much, much worse than Slumdog, admittedly, but what these have in common is that they are all the kind of foreign films or films about foreigners that get Oscar nominations, and perhaps in future I should make sure I avoid those.
Revolutionary Road isn’t very good, either, which was a bit of a surprise, as I enjoyed American Beauty, and had quite high hopes for this one. There’s very little drama, as what happens once the plot gets going is almost entirely predictable, and the general approach is to pile on every kind of cliché one can think of about suburban life in 1950s America. Michael Shannon’s two short scenesÂ are easily the best thing in the film, but even he’s just recapitulating another stale topos, the madman who talks more sense than anybody else. Part of me thinks that the suffocating layers of cliché and stereotype on all the various levels in this film must be part of its point – but then one just ends up wondering just what that point is supposed to be.
There was a good piece by the excellent Samuel “On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion” Fleischacker in Norm’s Writer’s Choice series last week, not least because most of it is actually about the book Rushdie wrote, which is sometimes hard to recover through the increasingly thick fog of what became “The Rushdie Affair”. He liked it as much as I did, when I read it in the second half of 1989, though with a much richer appreciation of what we might call Rushdie’s engagement with theodicy than I’d have been capable of sustaining back then, years before I started reading Augustine.
It’s nice to be reminded, too, of Martin Scorsese’s film of The Last Temptation of Christ. Fleischacker thinks it had “a far deeper religious sensibility” than that of its critics who charged it with heresy. That might be true, but I just remember it as tortured, laughable nonsense. (“Heaven’s a party, and everyone’s invited!”, says Scorsese’s Christ at one point, or something similar, and I don’t recall it ever getting more profound.) His Gangs of New York was also very, very bad, but there seems to be something about the badness of the religious film that gives it a certain kind of grandeur, of which the badness of the secular film falls short.
From my Balliol colleague Adam Roberts’ valedictory lecture, on retiring from the Montague Burton chair in International Relations at Oxford (and reproduced in this week’s Oxford Magazine):
Montague Burton (1885-1952), the great pioneer of mass production tailoring and the benefactor of the chair, was an incurable believer in modernity. In his extensive travels, his notes on which he published privately in two volumes entitled Global Girdling, he demonstrated a love of the modern and, with only a few exceptions, a dislike of antiquity. Visiting the Middle East in the 1930s, he hated the Pyramids and the Wailing Wall. By contrast he loved the railway on which one could glide from Cairo to Tel Aviv and thence to Jerusalem – a symbol of modernity to him that now seems to us to belong to an era long gone. He praise the Jerusalem Electricity Works – and he had no higher terms of praise than this – as ‘reminiscent of Bourneville and Port Sunlight. He was a passionate believer in the League of Nations: 6,000 of the employees at his Leeds factory belonged to the Montague Burton Branch of the League of Nations Union. His progressivism itself looks charmingly antique – as does his belief that if you put all men in suits you would deliver a body blow to the class system. Indeed, he developed ingenious schemes whereby customers could buy not just the suit but all that goes with it – the shirt, the tie, even socks and shows. This is almost certainly the origin of the phrase ‘The Full Monty’. I was tempted to entitle this lecture ‘The Full Monty’, but I don’t believe in encouraging false expectations, especially as by a perverse irony, thanks to Peter Cattaneo’s memorable 1997 film, The Full Monty now means the exact opposite of what it did originally.
In order to pretend to myself that it isn’t really admissions season, I’ve been going to the cinema.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is quite good. It’s not very good, but it is quite good, and it manages not to be dull, even though hardly anything happens, it all moves along very slowly, and you know exactly what’s going to happen towards the end. Beautifully filmed, and the acting’s not bad at all. It doesn’t, however, make me want to go off and live in Missouri. In the dispute between Norm and Adele and Sarah Churchwell on gender in the film, I think Sarah Churchwell edges it on points, with her shrewd remarks on the (d)evolution of the Western since Clint Eastwood showed up. (Do note the fine correction at the end of Churchwell’s piece.)
The Darjeeling Limited is quite funny when it’s being a silly film, but about halfway through it tries to become Meaningful, whereupon it becomes moderately tiresome, except for a couple of jokes towards the end and a brief appearance by a tiger. Ros K has more over here.
The trailer to The Golden Compass makes it look cracking, esp. the polar bear. But is it clear whether I should have a look at a Pullman novel or two ahead of time, or just wander along to see the film?
Stephen Pollard isn’t just an expert on cycling (“the team element is missing”, etc.). He also has sophisticated opinions on postwar European cinema. Here he is, for example, discussing the films of Ingmar Bergman. It’s already been labelled “the dumbest thing I’ve ever read” by one of the cinéphiles over at the Criterion Forum.
I should say that I’ve not seen much Bergman: Wild Strawberries once upon a time, and lengthy snippets of The Seventh Seal. So it’s just, just possible that I might agree with Pollard were I to see the rest of the oeuvre (which I’d like to do). But given that he lumps Bergman in with James Joyce and Harrison Birtwistle — my favourite novelist and one of my favourite living composers respectively — somehow I doubt that he and I are going to end up seeing eye to eye on this one, as on so much else. [Yo, bro.]
UPDATE, UPDATE: The same brother reminds me I’ve also seen Bergman’s Magic Flute (and it’s stupid of me to forget this, as I’ve got the DVD at home), which is just fantastic. And it probably has the best Pantomime Walrus in cinema history. YouTube clips over here, though I’m not sure they’ve got the PW in there.