Screening Room: ‘The Post’

The year’s big political movie comes with an unlikely cast and director: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. An all-too-timely thriller about the cacophonous showdown over the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, it opens in limited release on December 22.

My review is at Film Journal International:

For his most taut and dashing movie since Munich, Steven Spielberg chose an unlikely subject: the publishing of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971. It’s not history that Spielberg tends to favor. There are no great battles or monumental court cases; well, there is the latter, but Spielberg whips right past it without pausing for gassy Amistad oratory. The heroes are neither grand orators nor men of action. Instead, they’re mostly disputatious ink-stained wretches in off-the-rack suits…

Screening Room: ‘All Governments Lie’

Yallgovernmentslie1ou would imagine from the title of the new documentary All Governments Lie, that it’s an investigation of, well, government corruption. But that’s only a sideline in this barn-burner about corporate media’s apparent inability to hold those lying politicians to account.

All Governments Lie is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

If you take everything in Fred Peabody’s screed All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone at face value, then you might as well cancel your New York Times subscription. Don’t read the Washington Post either. PBS’ “Frontline” and CBS’ “60 Minutes”? Garbage, the lot of them! That’s the takeaway from this narrowcast documentary, which takes a valid critique of the deadening effect corporate-government synergy can have on mainstream media’s ability to truly afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and undercuts it with poor logic and simplistic argument…

Quote of the Day: Trump Say Newspaper Bad

792px-The_New_York_Times_newsroom_1942

Writers, take note: A certain presidential candidate opined today on an apparent lack of standards over at the paper of record.

According to Politico:

They don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman and others, they don’t — they don’t write good,” he said. “They don’t know how to write good.

We are sure that the tiny-fingered tycoon meant to say, “They don’t write well.”

Screening Room: ‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead’

'National Lampoon': Funny people (Magnolia)
‘Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon’: Funny people (Magnolia)

Natlamp73Remember magazines? National Lampoon was one of the best. Beyond serving as something of a thinking man’s Mad, it also fostered that upswell of talent coming out of the Chicago comedy improv scene in the 1970s and midwifed them to stardom at Saturday Night Live. Sure, that ultimately led to Coneheads the movie, but we can probably lay that more at Lorne Michaels’ feet.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is playing now in limited release; my review is at PopMatters:

People who only know National Lampoon as that odd possessive sitting atop posters for Animal House andVacation might be surprised by some details provided by Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. They might not have realized the depth of talent the comedy magazine cultivated. Or they might be surprised learn this monthly publication had a circulation of one million. Or that Chevy Chase was once considered a comedy genius…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: David Foster Wallace Predicted Netflix

TheWestWing1

Plenty of us have fallen down the new TV-binge rabbit hole more than once in the past few years. It’s a nice change of pace every now and again, instead of patiently waiting for the next installment just plowing through 5, 6, or 10 episodes on a weekend.  Adult life? Eh, it’ll still be there on Monday.

What goes by the wayside in the meantime, though? James Pearson’s essay on coming back to America and the media deluge that awaits him provides some answer:

When I left Uganda this winter I had finally broken the 300-page barrier in David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel, Infinite Jest. I’ve started it three or four times in the past and aborted each time for attentional reasons. But 300 pages felt like enough momentum, finally, to finish. Then I hit my first American airport, with its 4G and free wi-fi. All at once, my gadgets came alive: pinging and alerting and vibrating excitedly. And even better, all seven seasons of The West Wing had providentially appeared on Netflix Instant. I’ve only finished 100 more pages in the two months since…

It’s an addictive kind of media parasite that promises to keep sucking up more and more and more of our time.

Infinite_jest_coverIn an ironic twist, Wallace himself (who wrote on seductive comforts of mediocre shows) predicted the future of perfectly addictive entertainment in Infinite Jest, in which he imagined a movie so astoundingly awesome that everybody who started watching it would keep watching it … until they died.

Per Pearson:

In 2009, according to the media research company eMarketer, the average U.S. adult consumed about 10 hours and 32 minutes of media per day. (That’s including multitasking, so if you spend an hour browsing on your iPad while watching TV, that counts as two hours.) By 2012 that total was up over an hour to 11:39 per day. That’s almost eight hours more per week, per person. Now multiply that by America…

The question is what is being supplanted by all this media space? We probably already know and the answer isn’t a comforting one.

Writer’s Desk: Alone Time

Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.

Them1Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.

Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:

Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”

So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.

Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."
Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?