Roving thoughts and provocations

In the People’s Liberation Army

Mo Yan

Inge Morath/Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

Getting into the People’s Liberation Army was hard, but not as hard as getting into college. So, starting in 1973, I sent in my application and took a physical exam at the commune every year, and every year I was rejected. But then, in February 1976, with the help of some important people, my persistence paid off—I received my enlistment notice. Soon after that, on a cold, snowy day, I walked some fifteen miles to the county town. There I put on an army uniform and climbed into the back of a military truck for the trip to Huang County, where I moved into the famous “Ding Family Compound” barracks and began basic training.

Laws Not Fit to be Defended

David Cole

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to take on two challenges to anti-gay marriage laws has attracted widespread attention. But equally remarkable is the fact that neither the federal government nor the state of California are even willing to stand behind those laws. In both cases—United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry—surrogates are standing in to defend the laws in their stead. We have moved from “the crime not fit to be named” to the laws not fit to be defended. It once was considered shameful to be a homosexual; today it is shameful to be anti-gay. In an important sense, the gay rights advocates have already won.

Manhattan’s Forgotten Film Studio

Charles Simic

mptv images

Here, briefly, is the story. In March, 1917, while walking on Broadway, Buster Keaton bumped into a friend from vaudeville who happened to know Fatty Arbuckle, the famous silent movie comedian and Chaplin’s rival. Asked if he had ever acted in motion pictures, Keaton said no, and was invited to drop by Arbuckle’s studio on 48th Street the following Monday. Keaton first declined, because Arbuckle had stolen one of his vaudeville routines in the past, but then changed his mind because his curiosity was piqued by the opportunity to see how movies are made and especially how the gags are filmed.

Mesmerized by Brubeck and Desmond

Jeremy Bernstein

Bettmann/Corbis

One winter a lanky fellow with glasses appeared. I took him for a fellow academic and when I introduced myself he said, “Paul Desmond.” I was a jazz fan but had never seen Paul Desmond in person. His song “Take Five” had become the anthem of the Dave Brubeck quartet. It has a very unusual 5/4 rhythm and Desmond’s alto saxophone solo stays in your mind forever. We went to a local jazz club where there were some Jamaican kids playing. Desmond couldn’t resist and asked to borrow a saxophone. The kids had no idea who he was but I explained that he was pretty good. When he began to play they were mesmerized.

Protecting Powerful Men

Jonathan Freedland

On Thursday, after some sixteen months digesting a vast outpouring of written and oral evidence, Sir Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by British Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate “the culture, practices and ethics of the press,” delivered his two-thousand-page verdict. Given what he had heard in his courtroom, Leveson could plausibly have delivered damning judgements about the police, politicians—including Cameron and his ministers—and, especially, News Corporation and the Murdoch family who run it. Yet much of the report’s immense length is taken up by filling in the background, setting out the facts rather than apportioning blame.

It’s Time to Stop Killing in Secret

David Cole

Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

What would President Romney do with a drone? The New York Times reported Sunday that this question apparently haunted the White House so much that in the weeks before the election it raced to establish “explicit rules” and “clear standards and procedures” for the use of unmanned drones for targeted killings. As one candid, though anonymous, official stated, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.” But the real problem is not that there are no guidelines written down—though the administration itself seems now to acknowledge that what it has is insufficient—but that we the people don’t know what they are.

Modern Oslo’s Hidden Colors

Martin Filler

Espen Johnsen/Norsk Folkemusum

It has long been a commonplace that no region on earth embraced modern design more eagerly or fully than Scandinavia. During the early twentieth century, a host of reform-minded pioneers in the Nordic countries demonstrated how contemporary architecture and furnishings could both shape and respond to a changing society that was becoming closely attuned to the dignity of the common man.

Creating and Destroying the Universe in Twenty-Nine Nights

David Shulman

Hashim Haroon

Kudiyattam performances are never short. In their natural form, they range from twelve hours to over one hundred and fifty hours. This summer I spent all of August in central Kerala with my Sanskrit and Malayalam students, witnessing one of the great compositions of this tradition, the so-called Anguliyankam, or Drama of the Ring, which went on for some 130 hours spread over twenty-nine nights.

Lincoln’: A More Authentic Wonderment

Geoffrey O’Brien

DreamWorks

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of sufficient richness to instantly invite repeat viewings. It is a history film that dares to pile on verbal and visual details thickly and rapidly enough that a second viewing may be necessary simply to register all that is going on. Dropped right into the heart of the Congress of 1865, you scarcely have time to be introduced to the representatives busily attempting to drown each other out, or to be given much backstory on the alliances and resentments in play in one private parley after another, as Lincoln and his operatives try every form of arm-twisting and patronage short of outright bribery to enlist political support.