Roving thoughts and provocations

Alone in a Room Full of Ghosts

Geoffrey O’Brien

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Taking in Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys can feel like an exercise in compartmentalized perception. You may find yourself simultaneously following the storyline of a bluntly told police procedural; running your eyes down a series of displayed computer screens; tracking, amid the momentary tableaux of a constantly reconfigured set with dozens of video projections, the coming and goings of characters whose degree of actual as opposed to virtual existence is always in doubt, and above (or more properly beneath) all, listening intently to layers of music that overlap, in isolated parallel tracks, without ever quite joining up.

Trapped Inside the Novel

Tim Parks

Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum Photos

The variety of stories told in the Western novel is indeed remarkable, but the tendency to reinforce in the reader the habit of projecting his or her life as a meaningful story, a narrative that will very likely become a trap, leading to inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity, is nigh on universal. It hardly seems a cause for congratulation if the Western mindset is constructed around first projecting extravagant ambitions, the infamous “dream,” and then relying on authors like Alice Munro to offer consolation when it isn’t achieved. It is a way of seeing that is bound to produce states of profound disappointment for those who subscribe to it.

Unhinged in China

Ian Johnson

Kino Lorber, Inc.

Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is made up of four interlocking stories that are meant to encompass the geographic sweep of China, and what Jia sees as the epidemic of violence and amorality in modern Chinese life. All the stories are about members of China’s working classes, victims of social change who end up as violent desperados—modern-day knights trying to avenge large-scale wrongs. Interwoven are other themes that few other Chinese directors would touch: the destruction of traditions and religions, for example, or cruelty toward animals. It’s one of the few films out of China in recent years with ambition—and made by someone with enough talent to pull it off.

The New Battle for Congress

Elizabeth Drew

Getty Images/Corbis

Will Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his allies continue to threaten the very workings of the federal government while they pursue a lost cause? In order to stop Cruz, the large majority of Republicans in the Senate and the sizable bloc in the House who voted to stop the shutdown will have to decide that it’s too costly to curry favor with the Tea Party; and business groups and the US Chamber of Commerce will need to demonstrate by deeds that they’re no longer content to leave the dominant influence over Republican nominations to Congress to such groups as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. Or, perhaps, such groups, and large PACs such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, will decide they have to stop the Tea Party from taking the Republican Party over the falls.

The Wrong Way for Pompeii

Ingrid D. Rowland

Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis

As crowds of visitors have been reliving an artificial version of ancient Pompeii at the British Museum, the real Pompeii is suffering visibly from age, climate change, and institutional neglect. Aside from a well-worn path tailored to the compressed itineraries of cruise-ship operators and packaged bus tours, much of the site is inaccessible. Many of the city’s side streets are blocked, as are significant stretches of its main thoroughfare, the Via dell’Abbondanza. At best, a handful of houses are open to visitors. Pompeii is not only the graveyard of an ancient Roman city; it is also, and especially, the graveyard of modern good intentions.

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?

Jonathan Mirsky

Antar Dayal/Illustration Works/Corbis

China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to go to great lengths to say they were standing up for human rights in China. Now, trade ties with Beijing are so lucrative that Western leaders no longer need to lie: China is what it is.

Headline Headaches

Tim Parks

Félix Vallotton

Writer and reader continue to nurture the comforting illusion that they are at opposite ends of a direct line of communication, that the writer has spoken exactly and completely his mind on the matter in question, while the reader has followed and understood his reasoning from beginning to end. In reality, every message, whether in book, newspaper, or blog, is mediated in all kinds of ways, all of which tend to push the text toward two related editorial priorities: melodrama and the received idea. But nothing prejudices the way a reader comes to a piece more than its headline. Nothing is more likely to make him or her believe, even after reading the article through, that the author has said something he has not said and perhaps would never want people to imagine he has said.

Bleak House

Charles Simic

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

As one travels around the country, one is struck by how poorly dressed many Americans are and how run-down their cities and towns have become. Everyone knows what bankrupt Detroit looks like, but there are many other towns whose air of complete defeat is just as palpable. I once asked a taxi driver in one such place what people do there and he gave me a long list of all the big name manufacturers and businesses that have closed their doors over the past decade or two, confessing that he had no idea how his neighbors managed to make ends meet. I’ve no idea either.

Old Dreams for a New China

Ian Johnson

Ang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. A nationwide barrage of propaganda posters that went up starting in July gives a clearer explanation of what he is up to. Using the China Dream slogan, these posters extol various national virtues like filial piety and thrift. Drawing on traditional folk art rather than Communist symbols to illustrate their message, these posters redefine the state’s vision for China as a Confucian, family-centric nation, defined by a quiet life of respecting the elderly and saving for the future. Here are a selection of them.

Drowning in the Digital Abyss

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Pictures

A survival drama set almost entirely in the unfathomable emptiness of outer space, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is something now quite rare—a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.