Roving thoughts and provocations

When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night

Charles Simic

A number of years ago I bought Halliwell’s Film Guide to inform myself about old movies shown on TV and available in video stores. Occasionally, however, when I found it lying around, I’d open the Guide at random and start reading, usually attracted by the name of the film, something irresistible like Calling Doctor Death, Isle of Forgotten Sins, Naked Alibi, or Prudence and the Pill, about a girl who “borrows her mother’s contraceptives pills and replaces them with aspirin, causing no end of complication.” One day it dawned on me that out of the twelve to fifteen movies listed on every page of the Guide, there was at least one I had seen and more often several. Like millions of others who grew up in 1940s, I had spent a good part of my life seeing hundreds and hundreds of movies, everything from genuine masterpieces of the cinema to worthless trash.

On Christa Wolf

Günter Grass, translated by David Dollenmayer

AP Photo/Eckehard Schulz

Christa Wolf belonged to the generation in which I also count myself. We were stamped by National Socialism and the late—too late—realization of all the crimes committed by Germans in the span of just twelve years. Ever since, the act of writing has demanded interpreting the traces that remain.

Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong’s Quiet Return

Ian Johnson

Sim Chi Yin

The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate. In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion.

Deep Streep?

Martin Filler

Alex Bailey

Among the impenetrable mysteries of modern life is how Meryl Streep can be universally regarded as the greatest dramatic film actress of our time. In my opinion, Streep is easily at her best as a comedienne, not in the high-serious roles she has favored. Now we have the 62-year-old Streep in what many critics deem the crowning achievement of her storied 35-year Hollywood career, as Margaret Thatcher in the starring role of Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady. But when I watched this strange tour de force of Important Acting, I was uncertain whether I was witnessing a tragedy or a farce.

Sassy Angel

Lorrie Moore

The Roche-Wainwright-McGarrigle intertwinings comprise a musical family the sprawling brilliance of which has not been experienced perhaps since—well, we wonʼt say the Lizst-Wagners—but at least the Carter-Cashes. The extended family oeuvre, though varied, often has a conversational, smart-kids-at-summer-camp quality that is both folky and jokey. The Rochesʼ own wistful, clever songs are written with a sweet street spontaneity and prosody, and their clear, pure voices are like a barbershop trio of sassy angels. But most often they sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.

Banned in China

Jonathan Mirsky

AFP/Getty Images

In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. In over forty years of writing about China, I have been subjected to many forms of pressure. But this has never happened. Surely everything in my article is well known in Beijing, especially to the tiny number of English-reading urban people who buy Newsweek. What had I said that attracted the attention of the official shredder?

Free Associations: Collages

Janet Malcolm, with Hilton Als

Janet Malcolm
Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.

How Austerity Is Killing Europe

Jeff Madrick

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

The European Union has become a vicious circle of burgeoning debt leading to radical austerity measures, which in turn further weaken economic conditions and result in calls for still more damaging cuts in government spending and higher taxes. Rarely do we get so stark an example of bad—arguably even perverse—economic thinking in action. How could the EU so misread history and treat with contempt the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, who showed that during recessions governments must expand economies through spending and tax cuts, not the opposite? By ignoring this, European policy makers will deepen, not solve, the financial crisis and millions of people will suffer needlessly.

Unsexing Marilyn

Lee Siegel

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

It is not entirely the fault of the recent movie My Week with Marilyn—about Monroe’s disastrous attempt to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier—that it is devoid of sex, which is something like depicting the life of Napoleon without mentioning that he was French. Monroe might have been one of the most sexual beings who ever lived, but the portrayals of her, even by disillusioned observers, sooner or later descend into a sanitized ideal. The sex is overtaken by sentimental treacle, or heroic fantasy, or defensive over-analysis.

Egypt: The Mayhem

Yasmine El Rashidi

Mosa'ab Elshamy

From their position as the apparent protectors of last year’s revolution, Egypt’s military rulers have been pushed into increasingly brutal confrontations with civilians—at Maspero in October, during the run-up to elections in November, and most recently, during a week of mayhem in mid December. Peaceful protesters are arbitrarily being arrested and thrown in jail; and the army’s estrangement from the activists who led the revolution is visible in the newly-erected concrete walls that sever downtown streets to separate its forces from the people. These spasms of violence, as important to the future of Egypt as the outcome of elections, often seem to have a logic of their own; December’s episode was set off by a chain of events few could have predicted.