Roving thoughts and provocations

Tyrant with a Movie Camera

J. Hoberman

Andrei Ujica

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”

Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.

The Roberts Court’s Free Speech Problem

David Cole

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

On January 21, in its first decision of this term, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court’s five-member conservative majority announced that the First Amendment bars Congress from imposing even mild constraints on the ways corporations can employ their vast financial resources to drown out the voices of ordinary people in federal election campaigns. On June 21, in one of its last decisions of the term, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the same majority, this time joined by Justice John Paul Stevens, ruled that the First Amendment permits Congress to imprison human rights activists for up to fifteen years merely for advising militant organizations on ways to reject violence and pursue their disputes through lawful means. The two decisions purported to apply the same First Amendment standard, but in fact the Court applied that standard in radically different ways. In the Roberts Court’s world, corporations’ freedom to spend unlimited sums of money apparently deserves substantially greater protection than human rights advocates’ freedom to speak.

Maradona and Me

Alma Guillermoprieto

Alma Guillermoprieto

In January 1986, I became the South American bureau chief for a US magazine. It was not a happy marriage, and from the beginning I showed that I was not up to the job. A few weeks into my assignment, my editor phoned me. “We have a great story for you!” he burbled. I said that was wonderful. “We’re going to put you on the cover!” he exclaimed further, and I said that was wonderful too. Bursting with excitement, he said, “It’s Maradona!” There was a pause, and then I asked, “Where is that?” The silence that followed between us was to be never ending.

The Kimbell Gamble

Martin Filler

Robert LaPrelle/Kimbell Art Museum

Those who undertake additions to architectural landmarks ought to abide by the famous medical principle, “first, do no harm.” Thus the best one can say of Renzo Piano’s recently unveiled plans for a $125 million expansion of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth is that no fatal physical damage is about to be inflicted on what many revere as the finest of all modern gallery buildings.

The Trouble with Arizona

Larry McMurtry

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On April 23, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law what is probably the most stringent and least welcoming immigration law in the nation. Its intent is to have all law enforcement agencies in the state—Federal, state, and local—pool their muscle and get illegal immigrants out of the state of Arizona, pronto. Senate Bill 1070 may be cited as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.” Its passage immediately set off a chorus of indignation.

McChrystal Does Not Matter

Garry Wills

Pete Souza/The White House

The initial reaction to Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone article on General McChrystal was disturbing. The emphasis has been on the early parts of the article, with McChrystal’s dismissive attitude toward the President and his administration. Instant discussion focused on the person McChrystal—should he be fired, or resign, or have his resignation accepted? That does not matter. The Hastings article is powerful and important because of what it goes on to report from Afghanistan, building to a crushing conclusion, that the general was unable to command even the respect of Hamid Karzai and McChrystal’s own troops—for the very good reason that he has been given an impossible assignment, one that gets more surreal and absurd every day. His removal will not make the Afghan war go any better, for the simple reason that nothing will do that.

Metropolis, Enlarged

Geoffrey O’Brien

I first saw Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) sometime in the Sixties in a miserable 16-millimeter print under 90 minutes in length. Drastically cut not long after its premiere engagement in Germany, the film had been slashed ever further in subsequent editions. One of the most influential films ever made—the font of cinematic dystopias, a source of imagery reflected in films from The Bride of Frankenstein to Blade Runner—is only now being recovered in nearly its intended form. The 2001 restoration which brought it to 120 minutes was a revelation; that has now been surpassed, thanks to the discovery of additional footage in a Buenos Aires archive. At 147 minutes, the new Metropolis is just six minutes shy of the original running time, even if the newly restored footage is in sadly deteriorated condition. It hardly matters: to see Metropolis in its original form is to discover not just the new material but all the rest; the restorers have not simply added deleted episodes but expanded existing ones, and the film’s rhythms and internal rhymes are disclosed as if for the first time.

Letter to John Updike

Nicholson Baker

Twenty-five years ago, when I was twenty-eight and trying to write a novel, I sent this fan letter to John Updike. I lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, back then, and my girlfriend, now my wife, lived in Boston. I printed the letter out all on one page, with narrow margins, using my new Kaypro computer and Juki daisywheel printer. Updike didn’t answer—he couldn’t, because I didn’t put a return address on the envelope.

¡Viva México!

Alma Guillermoprieto

Luca Bruno/AP Photo

Wasn’t that a good game! I think it may be the first time in history that Mexico actually has a real team, with three bright young players—Javier Hernández, Giovani Dos Santos, and Carlos Vela—who were on the team that won the under-17 World Cup in 2005. This bunch doesn’t seem to carry the weight of defeatism that has burdened previous teams in every single World Cup Mexico has qualified for, and they’re in top physical condition. By the end of the first half, they’d thoroughly tired out the panting French.

Words

Tony Judt

I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.