Roving thoughts and provocations

Obama: The First Term Did It

Elizabeth Drew

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

Despite all the lamentations about Barack Obama having second-term blues and bad luck, it’s what happened during the first term that matters most. The enormous difficultyObama is having with his signature issue, the health care law, is the shining example of how this can work. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the program was set in motion in the early years of his presidency.

David Cronenberg’s Visual Shock

J. Hoberman

Dimension Films

To the general movie-going public, David Cronenberg is likely best known for The Fly (1986), a luridly operatic remake of a 1950s drive-in horror film, in which a scientist played by Jeff Goldblum inadvertently transforms himself into an insect. But many career-long Cronenberg concerns (body horror, cyberpunk, regendered sex acts) and tropes (viral epidemics, organic glop in institutional settings) have parallels in the work of gallery artists, and he is one of the few filmmakers whom artists regard as a colleague and perhaps a model. This fall, Cronenberg is the subject of three new exhibitions in his native Toronto—the main one devoted to his film work, another curated by him, the third consisting of artworks commissioned in his honor.

The Last Night in Camelot

Martin Filler

Ferd Kaufman/AP Images

Early on the morning of November 22, 1963, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Mrs. John F. Kennedy made “an astounding discovery”:

In the fatigue of last night and the haste of this morning neither Kennedy had noticed that they were surrounded by a priceless art exhibition…. A catalogue, which had also been overlooked, disclosed that the exhibit was in their honor. “Isn’t this sweet, Jack?” she said…. “They’ve just stripped their whole museum of all their treasures to brighten up this dingy hotel suite.” He knew it had been done for her, and taking the catalog he said, “Let’s see who did it.” There were several names at the end. The first was Mrs. J. Lee Johnson III. “Why don’t we call her?” he suggested. Thus Johnson…became the surprised recipient of John Kennedy’s last telephone call.

The NSA’s Global Threat to Free Speech

Kenneth Roth

Félix Vallotton

Following months of Snowden disclosures, the extent to which the National Security Agency’s extraordinary surveillance infringes on the privacy of our communications and other vast areas of our lives has become widely apparent. Far less appreciated, however, is the global threat it poses to freedom of expression. After the revelations about NSA surveillance, many countries have said they may require Internet companies to keep data about their citizens on servers within their own borders. If that becomes standard practice, it will be easier for repressive governments to monitor Internet communications.

Art Thieves and Gurus

Charles Simic

Keystone/Getty Images

The three of us were sitting in one of the German beer halls on 86th Street sipping beer and dipping knockwurst into mustard, when Maurice slapped his forehead. “Doesn’t he look like Gurdjieff to you?” he asked, pointing at my father. I had to agree that there was a strong resemblance to the photograph of the famous spiritual teacher and Eastern mystic, who had dazzled the elites in Paris and New York in 1920s and 1930s.

Streamline Dreamer

Martin Filler

Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation/Harry Ransom Center

Our retrospective image of 1930s America derives in large part from Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958), the self-taught polymath who virtually invented the profession of industrial design. Thanks to Geddes and his pioneering New York firm, these were the years of Streamline Moderne, a particularly American variant of Modernism—smoother, softer, and more accessible than the stringent machine aesthetic of Le Corbusier or the late-phase Bauhaus. Yet Geddes never quite found a place in the pantheon of American high style designers, and the fascinating survey that the curator Donald Albrecht has put on at the Museum of the City of New York therefore comes as something of a rediscovery.

Iran’s Plutonium Game

Jeremy Bernstein

Wikimedia

To anyone who has been following the Iranian nuclear program, it was almost a forgone conclusion that negotiations with Iran would hit a road block when it came to the so-called IR-40 heavy water reactor located in Arak. The “40” here refers to the projected power output of forty megawatts of thermal power. It is hard to imagine generating much electricity from a forty-megawatt reactor. Whatever the IR-40’s intended use, it is not to produce electric power. What it does produce is plutonium—something that is useful for making a bomb.

Literature Without Style

Tim Parks

David Levine

Literary style is predicated on a strict relation to a specific readership, and the more that readership is diluted or extended, particularly if it includes foreign-language readers, the more difficult it is for a text of any stylistic density to be successful. In the long run, whether through a growing awareness of the situation on the part of writers, or simply by a process of natural selection, it seems inevitable that style will align with what can be readily translated more or less into multiple languages and cultural settings, or into a readily intelligible international idiom.

Silenced

Christopher Benfey

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The best sequences in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave are not history lessons. They are, instead, visually ambiguous and open-ended. As Solomon Northup’s hopes for freedom are repeatedly dashed, McQueen risks a sustained, silent stare at Solomon’s face, allowing us to guess what his emotions are. Time passing is expressed in slow, soundless pans of Louisiana swamps, gaunt trees wreathed in moss at dawn and sunset. At such moments, one feels that McQueen would almost have been happy making 12 Years a Slave as a silent film, with a meditative slowness almost non-existent in current Hollywood productions.

Syria’s Assault on Doctors

Annie Sparrow

JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last few weeks, the growing plight of Syria’s civilian population has drawn belated international attention to the country’s failing health system. In late October, in the eastern part of the country, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio; and reports of malnutrition and disease in the besieged areas on the outskirts of Damascus and other embattled cities have raised new fears of a spreading public health disaster. But these developments are not simply the unfortunate effects of an increasingly brutal war. They are connected to something far more sinister: a direct assault on the medical system by the Syrian government as a strategy of war.