One of the many cartoons published in homage to the cartoonists and journalists assassinated on Wednesday in the office of Charlie Hebdo showed a gravestone with the inscription “Died of Laughter.” No one is laughing these days in Paris. In fact, the massacre raises questions about laughter itself.
By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public.
In Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant new three-hour documentary on the National Gallery in London, we may learn about Caravaggio, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, about Holbein and Henry VIII, about the ethos of the Counter-Reformation or Titian’s use of poesia. But we learn almost more about the varied ways that art can be brought to life today.
We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is that, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those that we allow to roam “wild” in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms.
To say that Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully and successfully adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice to the screen is another way of saying that he has changed it into something entirely different. The words in Anderson’s film are mostly Pynchon’s; the plot elements too, however freely they have been culled and transposed; the free-associative multiplicity and ricocheting mood changes are carried over with a miraculous lightness of touch.
One of the main findings of the Senate investigation of the CIA’s torture program was not simply the abuse, or the law-breaking, or the moral reprehensibleness of it. It was that there was a fundamental corruption of governance, in which the CIA persistently lied, not only to Congress but to the executive branch to which it ostensibly reported.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is riveting, visually and dramatically. It is also precise about Russia: the corruption, inequality, and ultimate hopelessness that drive its plot are becoming only more evident and pronounced in the current meltdown of the economy.
As with many classics, if Beatrix Potter’s tales have become invisibly “charming,” it is time to return to them and see them anew. The Tale of Two Bad Mice captures perfectly not only Potter’s “subversive” side with respect to bourgeois society, but more primitively, her reworking of what we must surmise are the frustrations of her youth.
The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turning, seems determined to suggest maximum tension between him and a blinkered society. But this completely destroys any coherent telling of what Turing and his colleagues were trying to do.
We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession; certainly his wonderful essays on other writers, the fruits of that reading, are at least as fine an achievement as his stories. So if reading is a skill, there must be techniques and tools that everyone can use or try, even if we use them differently.