Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

Washington: When Decency Prevailed

Elizabeth Drew

Wally McNamee/CORBIS

The five hundred people who turned out for this week’s memorial for Tom Foley were there mainly because of what Foley had stood for. Washington, D.C., is a town of people who are very busy or like to think that they are. The country’s most powerful political leaders, some of them bitter opponents of each other, set aside other matters for more than two hours to honor a man whom most Americans had little memory of, and who was not, in this most transactional of cities, in a position to do any of them any good now.

How to Uphold Racial Injustice

David Cole

Joe Marino/NY Daily News/Getty Images

A decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit late Thursday suggests that there is no limit to the obstacles courts can raise to claims of race discrimination. Not only did the Court of Appeals overturn a landmark lower court decision in August finding that the New York City Police Department had engaged in intentional discrimination in its “stop-and-frisk” program; it also took the extraordinary step of removing the lower court judge from the case.

Bitter Faces in the Holy Land

David Shulman

Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

We tend to imagine the Wall, or the Separation Barrier, as it is officially called in Israel, as a single, monolithic structure. In reality it is a set or system of walls and fences within walls and fences, a recursive infinite regress of barbed wire, rock, and cement that turns inward as it slithers over the hills, enclosing most Palestinian villages on the occupied West Bank in non-contiguous enclaves even as it incorporates into Israel as many Jewish settlements as possible. Upon completion, its dizzying route is expected to run for over 700 kilometers. Wall, Josef Koudelka’s new book of eloquent black-and-white photographs, taken over four years in repeated trips to Israel and Palestine, reveals a Biblical landscape ravaged by greed and by the desperate illusion that safety, at least some tentative and temporary form of safety, can be found in a big fence.

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.