Roving thoughts and provocations

LA’s Alternate Realities

Martin Filler

Alan E. Leib Collection

How can the most architecturally innovative part of the United States also be such a thoroughgoing urban mess? This spring and summer, two complementary exhibitions seek to bring the unfathomableness of LA into focus. The first, Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990,” which is at the J. Paul Getty Museum through July 21, explores how the city emerged through fitful initial development, explosive postwar growth, and a distinctive built legacy. The second, “Never Built: Los Angeles,” which opens at LA’s Architecture and Design Museum on July 13, examines a stunning array of unexecuted projects to show why the city didn’t become something else.

Guantánamo and Torture: It’s Up to Obama

David Cole

Yahya Arhab/Corbis

Until now, President Obama has put the blame for failing to deal with Guantánamo on Congress. Without question, Congress has made his job more difficult by obstructing detainee transfers with onerous “certification” requirements. But there are steps the president could nonetheless take. For example, the current law permits the executive branch to waive some of the requirements when the transfer “is in the national security interests of the United States.” Moreover, eighty-six detainees have been “cleared for release” but remain in detention. Fifty-six of them are Yemeni citizens, and it was President Obama, not Congress, who placed their release on hold.

Someone Else’s Memories

Francine Prose

Strand Releasing

The most intriguing and moving scene in Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux takes place at a meeting of a local twelve-step recovery group. One by one the men get up and describe, in what we intuit are their own words, the personal crises that drove them to seek help from the group. The camera pans the room. The assembled participants, whom we glimpse only briefly, are clearly not professional actors; they are as unconventionally attractive as the Mennonite characters in his earlier film Silent Light. Their highly condensed confessions are spellbinding and affecting. I was sorry when the scene ended and we returned to Juan and his neurotic preoccupations. It makes one wish that Reygadas will, in the future, redirect his attention away from the work of his cinematic heroes and his own memories and feelings—and return to the lives of others.

Octopus: The Footed Void

Caspar Henderson

Ethan Daniels/Getty Images

In a celebrated poem Ogden Nash begs the octopus to tell him if its limbs are arms or legs. Textbooks have a no-nonsense answer: they are arms, not legs (and emphatically not tentacles). But super tongues would be at least as good. Each octopus arm is a muscular hydrostat, like a human tongue, and each of the tens or hundreds of suckers on it is lined with tens of thousands of chemoreceptors—taste buds to you and me—and a comparable number of nerve endings that provide an exquisite sense of touch.

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

James Gleick

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Categories are a big deal. They are an important way to group articles; some people use them to navigate or browse. Categories provide structure for a web of knowledge—not a tree, because a category can have multiple parents, as well as multiple children. It’s fair to say that Wikipedia has spent far more time considering the philosophical ramifications of categorization than Aristotle and Kant ever did.

Misha’ Speaks: An Interview with the Alleged Boston Bomber’s ‘Svengali’

Christian Caryl

AP Photo/The Lowell Sun, Julia Malakie

As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings continues, one of the more clouded aspects is the tale of “Misha,” a mysterious US-based Islamist who has been accused by members of the Tsarnaev family of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two alleged bombers. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN after the attacks. “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.” These accusations set off a frenzied search for what some reports have called an Islamic Svengali, and over the past few days, the FBI has said it has located and has been talking to “Misha,” though his identity has remained unknown. Today I was able to interview “Misha.”

Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting

Elizabeth Drew

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The nonsense about what it takes for a president to win a victory in Congress has reached ridiculous dimensions. The fact that Barack Obama failed to win legislation to place further curbs on the purchase of guns—even after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut—has made people who ought to know better decide that he’s not an “arm-twister.” Ever since Obama took office, others have been certain about how he should handle the job and that he wasn’t doing it right.

China’s Sufis: The Shrines Behind the Dunes

Ian Johnson

Lisa Ross

Lisa Ross’s luminous photographs are not our usual images of Xinjiang. One of China’s most turbulent areas, the huge autonomous region in the country’s northwest was brought under permanent Chinese control only in the mid-twentieth century and its population of Uighur Muslims has long had difficult relations with Beijing. In 2008, 2009, and 2012, Xinjiang was the site of bloody protests. Instead of representing these political conflicts, however, Ross’s photographs reveal a little-known religious tradition in Xinjiang—its desert shrines to Sufi saints.

New York in Slow Motion

J. Hoberman

James Nares

James Nares’s Street, an engrossing and celebratory hour-long, oversized video projection of life in New York City, is a monument to evanescence. Now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27, the work was fashioned from sixteen hours of material, recorded in six-second bursts from a vehicle moving through city streets at a rate of thirty miles per hour. The molasses-paced tour opens in Times Square and, occasionally revisiting the midtown area, goes through Harlem, Chelsea, and parts of the Bronx, with extended crosstown trips to transverse busy 125th, 34th, and 14th streets, accompanied by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s unamplified twelve-string vamping.

A Poet on the Road

Charles Simic

Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos

After my first book of poetry came out in 1967 and received some favorable reviews, I started getting calls and letters from schools around the country inviting me to come and read. If the money being offered was acceptable, I’d say yes. Over the last forty-five years, I’ve been to colleges and universities, but also to high schools, libraries, bookstores, grade schools, bars, nursing homes, jazz clubs, coffee houses, movie theaters, abandoned malls, and places that don’t fall into any of these categories, like that storefront where I shared the bill with a magician and a local rock band. It was packed, I remember, with a rough young crowd who were there to hear the band and who were okay with the magician being the first act, but grew unruly once they learned that a poet was to follow.