Thursday, May 08, 2008

In the Penny Press!

There can be little doubt: The New Yorker's Anthony Lane gets the prize for the week's most flat-out hilarious chunk of prose, the opening of his review of the Wachowski brothers' new movie adaptation of "Speed Racer":

Gluttons for "Duck Soup" will remember the scene in which Groucho is faced with an official document. "Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report," he says. "Run out and find me a four-year-old child." My sentiments exactly, as I sat in a cathedral-sized auditorium wreathed in the ineffable mysteries of "Speed Racer." This is the latest offering from Andy and Larry Wachowski, bringers of "The Matrix," and, if it is about anything, it is about the quest to overwhelm a particular stratum of the masses. A four-year-old will be reduced to a gibbering but highly gratified wreck; an eight-year-old will wander around wearing a look that was last seen on the face of Dante after he met Beatrice. But what about the rest of us? True, our eyeballs will slowly, though never completely, recover, but what of our souls?

Even before the Dante reference, it's obvious that Lane is way, way too smart to be writing pro forma movie reviews like this. Hilarious as they are, they're way too good for the humble little art form they adorn.

Lane's piece is the best thing in this current New Yorker, but only by a hair: Margaret Talbot's piece on animal intelligence, "Birdbrain," is also uniformly excellent. Talbot's a wonderful writer, and here she's sinking her teeth into a big, burgeoning subject: the cognitive abilities of animals other than man. This is a fantastic piece, in which Talbot surveys, in pitch-perfect prose, the whole fraught subject. Here's a sample:

If instinct could explain why your dog growled at your suitcase, then there was no need to cast about for a richer interpretation, one that might, as Morgan put it, "savour of the prattle of the parlour tea table rather than the sober discussion of the study." As sensible as Morgan's canon sounded, it essentially censored the question: "Do animals think?"

They do, of course, although virtually none of them think in human terms, and that's interesting for a couple of reasons, not least of which is that all of you will find the whole subject of animal intelligence ably laid out and debated in the June issue of Open Letters Monthly (this New Yorker issue also features a brief Jeffrey Toobin notice about the hardships Ted Sorensen faced writing his new memoir, Counsellor - a book you'll find also ably reviewed, in that same June issue of Open Letters).

Meanwhile, over in the TLS, the great Jonathan Bate offers us a fantastic long piece on the criminally overlooked Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton. Bate's essay is a model of all that's best in the form: it's effortlessly authoritative but also fluidly readable. Our only quibble (and you just knew we had one, right?) arose from some of the offhand assertions Bate tosses around in his final paragraph, which we'll quote in full:

The decision [on the part of Middleton's latest editors to note every textual variation in Middleton's various early editions] may, however, prove counter-productive: will this self-consciously post-modern Middleton Folio have the impact it deserves in the absence of a pre-modern or just a plain modern one? Taylor could, with the assistance of a co-editor and a few graduate students, have dashed out a modern-spelling edition of Middleton's complete plays in five years, winning his hero a more prominent place both in the college classroom and on the classical stage. He would probably have finished that in about 1993, the year of the World Wide Web. He would then have seen that the internet's hypertext facility provided the perfect medium for a deconstructive edition with full scholarly bells and whistles. By the mid-1990s, the Arden Shakespeare team had developed an electronic edition that made it possible to move onscreen between modern-spelling texts, facsimiles of original quartos, editorial variants, commentary notes, sources and part-books for individual roles. This is what is now needed for Middleton. It is good news that Gary Taylor's principal co-editor, John Lavagnino, is a computer expert and that they are even now at work on an electronic edition (the initial website accompanying the print edition is perfunctory in the extreme). Thomas Middleton has been monumentalized in print at the very moment when print is ceasing to be our primary medium of literary monumentalization. He might just have missed the boat again.

Needless to say, we here at Stevereads, despite being ourselves an Internet phenomenon, don't agree with this cavalier avowal of the print world's demise. But it's a small quibble, and it certainly didn't diminish our appreciation of the piece as a whole - Middleton has always been one of our favorite dramatists, and Bate is right in diagnosing why you're unlikely to find a standard collection of his works in your local bookstore: the problem, to paraphrase a former U.S. President, is what your definition of 'his' is. Middleton was a great collaborator, a great and creative hack willing to work with anybody. He could brush up dialog until it sparkled; he could come up with plot-twists that had his collaborators scratching their heads trying to figure out why they didn't think of that; he had a very good ear for how to work a crowd, and there was no job he thought himself too good for.

As a result, he's all over the drama map, and chasing down exactly which works he had a hand in - and to what extent - is something of a chore.

So where do you start, you ask? Start with "The Changeling," which Middleton mostly wrote himself (Will Rowley also had a hand in it, but trust us, it was a very small hand). It'll hook you immediately, and it's as good as anything in Shakespeare. If you can, find the 1993 production Simon Curtis did ... it will not only entertain you, it'll drastically increase your estimate of the acting abilities of Bob Hoskins, Elizabeth McGovern, and especially Hugh Grant. Hoskins especially does a marvelously disturbing job as the villainous DeFlores.

But by far the most disturbing thing in this go-round of In the Penny Press is a brief article in the latest Asimov's by Carl Frederick called "The Challenge of the Anthropic Universe," in which the author, a quantum theoretician and thus not a crackpot (well, not a religious crackpot, anyway) examines Australian physicist Brandon Carter's assertion that "the Universe, and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends, must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage."

Frederick goes on:

The depth of the anthropic problem is, I think, well described by the cosmologist responsible for the Steady State theory of the universe (and noted science fiction author), Sir Fred Hoyle. His appreciation for the almost miraculous coincidences in enabling carbon to be produced in stars caused him to change his very perception of the universe. He wrote, "A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintendent has monkeyed with the physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. I do not believe that any physicist who examined the evidence could fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside stars."

These are physicists talking, keep in mind. The gist of the matter is that, to many such physicists, the physical constants of the universe seem too finely 'tuned' to be the random products of cosmological development. They don't leap from this observation to God - Frederick is quick to point out that such a leap is neither the scientific community's preferred solution nor his own. But even so ... it's mighty disturbing to read about scientists working on the leading edges of the quantum field saying the things they're working on seem like they were made by somebody. Even worse, that they look like they were made specifically for humans.

Here's hoping the right-wing Christian nutjobs who currently control this country don't read Frederick's article ...


sam said...

I like Lane's piece too, but he ends it by calling the movie a work of 'pop fascism,' which was a rather discordant final note. I don't know how to ake it when Lane starts making cultural critiques, since he's so infallibly withering and smirking. I feel like if a real fascist dictator took over the country, Lane would be making the same withering quips about the dictator's mustache or jackboots...he's hard to take seriously.

steve said...

well, yes, especially since EVERY critic has pointed out the irony of the Wachowski brothers making corporate evil their theme and then taking scadloads of money from the biggest corporation on the planet.

Still, I like prose that can make me hoot out loud.

Kevin said...

That irony extends to Speed Racer, certainly - the whole time I was watching it (why was I watching it?), all I could think was, 'they only made this movie as an ad for the inevitable video game'. Back in the day, concerned parents raised a bit of a clamor over the 'half hour toy commercials' that were my favorite cartoons - ah, Voltron - a concept that George Lucas and the Wachowski's have taken to a whole new level.

At one point, Speed is instructed on the new functions of his rally race car: 'press the A button for a super jump. Press the B button for...'

There were about twelve other disturbing movie-making trends I noted in Speed Racer, but I wonder if it isn't pointless to discuss them.

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