Roving thoughts and provocations

Ice Cool Brooklyn

Martin Filler

Michael Moran/OTTO

The theme of Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral campaign was “a tale of two cities,” his metaphor for the widening gulf between the privileged and the powerless. In urban design, nothing could have made that split clearer than the contrasting fortunes of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s two heartfelt contributions to New York life—their new ice rink in Prospect Park and their American Folk Art building.

Love Objects

Elaine Blair

Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze’s film Her is a story about machines and humans and human-like machines. Skin is important. The unnatural appearance of Catherine, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the hero, makes her seem something other than a flesh-bound fellow human with Theodore.

A Smaller, Meaner Scandal

Francine Prose

John Moore/Getty Images

What has made “Bridgegate” simultaneously risible, demoralizing, and destructive is that it’s so quotidian, so simple. Being stuck in traffic is a familiar experience, a lot easier to imagine and to understand than the details of Obamacare or of the technical glitches that nearly sabotaged the inception of the new health-insurance laws.

MoMA Loses Face

Martin Filler

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The only conceivable rationale for the removal of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s Folk Art building would have been to replace it with something better. Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s sad little sellout does not come close. They have violated the golden rule of opportunism: if you forfeit your soul, at least get a good price for it.

Writing to Win

Tim Parks

Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition? And more interestingly, what effect does this shift from derision to reverence have on the author and his work, and on literary fiction in general?

Dancing to Nowhere

Alexander Stille

Janus Films

Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.

Afghanistan: The Desert of Death

Anatol Lieven

Anja Niedringhaus/AP/Corbis

In Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun province of Helmand, the sheer size and emptiness of the land and a pervasive Taliban presence has meant an inability of outside powers to control it. As US and British forces pull back, and the Afghan National Army abandons its outlying positions, the government is likely to shrink to spots on the landscape.

A ‘Twelfth Night’ Epiphany

Walter Kaiser

Photo by Joan Marcus

Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the presentation of the Christ child to the three kings, was one of the major feasts of the medieval and Tudor church. By Elizabeth’s time, it had long since become an occasion for merrymaking, bringing the Christmas holiday to a close. The comic spirit of the occasion was that of the Lord of Misrule deposing whoever was in authority and actions being performed in some sort of topsy-turvy reversal, creating carnival disorder. In Shakespeare’s play, a man plays a girl pretending to be a man, identical twins are confused, a servant imagines he is worthy of being made a noble, cakes and ale triumph over virtue.

When the Yellow Press Got Color

J. Hoberman

On October 18, 1896, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst went to war against Joseph Pulitzer. His opening salvo was The New York Journal’s five-cent color supplement, The American Humorist, which Hearst called “eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a piece of lead pipe.”