Roving thoughts and provocations

‘Selma’ vs. History

Elizabeth Drew

Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library

By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public.

A Grande Dame in Close-Up

Jenny Uglow

Idéale Audience/Gallery Film/Zipporah Films

In Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant new three-hour documentary on the National Gallery in London, we may learn about Caravaggio, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, about Holbein and Henry VIII, about the ethos of the Counter-Reformation or Titian’s use of poesia. But we learn almost more about the varied ways that art can be brought to life today.

Our Animal Hell

Robert Pogue Harrison

Museo del Prado, Madrid

We like to think of ourselves as the stewards or even saviors of nature, yet the fact of the matter is that, for the animal world at large, the human race represents nothing less than a natural disaster. This applies to all creatures, from those that we allow to roam “wild” in designated nature preserves to those we cram together on our chicken farms.

Pynchon’s Blue Shadow

Geoffrey O’Brien

Warner Bros. Pictures

To say that Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully and successfully adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice to the screen is another way of saying that he has changed it into something entirely different. The words in Anderson’s film are mostly Pynchon’s; the plot elements too, however freely they have been culled and transposed; the free-associative multiplicity and ricocheting mood changes are carried over with a miraculous lightness of touch.

Our New Politics of Torture

Mark Danner, interviewed by Hugh Eakin

DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/Getty Images

One of the main findings of the Senate investigation of the CIA’s torture program was not simply the abuse, or the law-breaking, or the moral reprehensibleness of it. It was that there was a fundamental corruption of governance, in which the CIA persistently lied, not only to Congress but to the executive branch to which it ostensibly reported.

Russia: Man vs. System

Masha Gessen

Sony Classics

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is riveting, visually and dramatically. It is also precise about Russia: the corruption, inequality, and ultimate hopelessness that drive its plot are becoming only more evident and pronounced in the current meltdown of the economy.

Mice: Naughty and Nice

April Bernard

Beatrix Potter

As with many classics, if Beatrix Potter’s tales have become invisibly “charming,” it is time to return to them and see them anew. The Tale of Two Bad Mice captures perfectly not only Potter’s “subversive” side with respect to bourgeois society, but more primitively, her reworking of what we must surmise are the frustrations of her youth.

A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing

Christian Caryl

Jack English/Black Bear Pictures

The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turning, seems determined to suggest maximum tension between him and a blinkered society. But this completely destroys any coherent telling of what Turing and his colleagues were trying to do.

How I Read

Tim Parks

Agostino Ramelli

We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession; certainly his wonderful essays on other writers, the fruits of that reading, are at least as fine an achievement as his stories. So if reading is a skill, there must be techniques and tools that everyone can use or try, even if we use them differently.

The New Chartres: An Exchange

Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, reply by Martin Filler

Hubert Fanthomme/Getty Images

Contrary to Martin Filler’s assertion that virtually nothing remains of the previous painting at Chartres, beneath the grime not one, but two layers of false masonry were visible, one dating to the thirteenth, the other to the fifteenth century. If there is anything controversial, it lies with the restorers’ decision to use the thirteenth-century false masonry as their guide.