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Bobby Fischer

Edward Rothstein in the NY Times: "...as Bobby Fischer's death on Thursday might remind us, even abstract gifts can exact a terrible price."

Many of the commentaries assert or presume that there must have been a connection between Fischer's genius and his eccentricities (or paranoid schizophrenia, take your pick). Why should the combination be more than coincidence? Substantial research suggests that high-functioning people in all domains experience less mental illness than average. So was there ever any logic to Dryden's

Great wits are sure to madness near allied
And thin partitions do their bounds divide

beyond a visceral (envious?) insistence on balance or payback? Surely some of it is no more than an upscale, cognitive version of the tabloids' barely suppressed satisfaction that Michael Jackson or Britney Spears is, y'know, really weird and unhappy.

There Will be Blood

It's coincidence that another movie follows so soon on the 3:10 to Yuma post. I've spent most of my life with my nose in a book, watching less TV and seeing fewer movies than most of my contemporaries. Only in recent years, mostly through Netflix DVD rentals, have I filled in gaps, systematically explored genres and directors and actors, and begun  -- just begun -- to feel that I can "read" movies with anything like the skills and context I bring to books.

First: don't wait for DVD to see There Will Be Blood. Its overwhelming physical intensity will lose a lot on a small screen (no, 56" LCD in a home theater won't cut it.)

Second: Its inspiration was Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! , about a California tycoon and his son. Well, yeah but... that's misleading in that Sinclair's rep (90% from The Jungle and whatever we recall of "muckraking") brings to mind Progressive social/political reform and big-picture historicity. There Will Be Blood  does portray a very convincing early-20th-century California. But what it's about is Daniel Day-Lewis's character, in the same sense that Citizen Kane is about Kane's. It's not irrelevant that Kane (and William Randolph Hearst) were newspaper tycoons, but the energy of the movie comes above all from a central figure who wants. Wants... something? Everything? That he doesn't know is part of the fascination, but you'll damn well know -- feel --  that whatever it is, he wants it more than most of us have ever wanted anything.

Ditto for There Will Be Blood: real blood, bloodlines, the Blood of the Lamb, and oil as the earth's blood make a rich and artfully exploited  thematic mix. And it does matter that we bring to the movie a 2008 awareness of just what a big spike in the arm petroleum has been for the modern world. But it's possible to imagine this character and his story, like Kane's, set in another time and place and industry.  

This is a great movie at a whole nother level than 3:10 to Yuma is a very good movie. My admiration for the latter is about craft and polish. I'd seen all its components used before, but they're exquisitely fitted, and the performances -- several of them first-rate -- are subordinated to that. In There Will Be Blood, although Anderson's craft is everywhere, "polish" is the last word that comes to mind. Is an earthquake or a heart  attack polished? Day-Lewis eats the screen alive, sucks the air out of your lungs, takes you places you've never been, maybe places movies have never been.

Stop reading. Check your local listings. Go.

[Update: when I saw Day-Lewis as glass-eyed, blade-fondling Bill Cutting in Gangs of New York, it occurred to me that Leonardo di Caprio -- the nominal star -- would be well-advised to buy up and burn all the prints, because when he shared the screen with DDL he might as well have been invisible. Well, any other actor or director who wants an Oscar this year should do the same for TWBB...]    

Don't Go There

In this NY Times story, Lord Alton cites (without details) a twin brother and sister separated at birth who married -- a classic what-if in debates about adoption information. “They met later," he says, "and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences” when they sought an annulment.

Shall we parse the assumptions behind that "inevitable"..?

I didn't think so.


3:10 to Yuma

This is a profoundly satisfying movie -- with the satisfaction still growing several days after seeing it, as I reflect on how and why it works so well.

Brief genealogy: Elmore Leonard's 1953 short story begat Delmer Daves' 1957 movie, a crisp and admirable Western but not on most "best of the genre" lists. Fifty years later, just about everything new that director James Mangold and his cast bring to the remake is both (1) an improvement and (2) perfectly true to the good bones of Leonard's story. And that's a lot of bones, because the story has two skeletons, two kinds of narrative, each thread generating its own tension and suspense within one plot.

Brief plot: A struggling Arizona rancher (Christian Bale) and his sons witness a robbery by a very bad outlaw gang. The very bad outlaw leader -- laid-back, smooth-talking, manipulative Russell Crowe -- is captured, and must be delivered to the railroad station so the title train can take him to trial. But, of course, his very bad gang -- now led by his very very bad second-in-command, Brad Foster (Six Feet Under) with a rattlesnake-heart transplant -- will do its damnedest to prevent that. The rancher volunteers for the escort "posse" because he needs the money, and we're off.

One thread is driven by the chronological suspense implicit in the title. Will they get to the station on time? How many of the escorts will survive the trip? Think High Noon, No Way Out... and yes, bizarre as it may sound, think "will the good guys get the Ring of Power to Mount Doom?"

The other thread is moral suspense. The prisoner, that silver-tongued devil, is alert to every opportunity not only to escape, but to harm his escorts or turn them against each other. How bad will our decent rancher have to become along the way? Will he be corrupted, pulled down to the prisoner's level? Think Cape Fear, The Desperate Hours. Think "will the Ring turn Frodo into another Gollum?"

Every scene, every incident, every line of dialogue advances one thread or the other, with a dozen memorable moments -- structural "beats" -- when they interact with each other in a new way. The external situation evolves along the way to the train station, changing the pressures on (and your expectations of) the characters. At the same time their moral positions vis-a-vis each other are evolving, so your hopes and fears about what will happen next acquire new facets. Circumstance and behavior push and pull each other so deftly that in the denouement, you accept extreme twists in both that would have seemed way over the top, unearned and arbitrary, in a lesser movie.

It's brilliant counterpoint, the more so because everyone involved knows it, trusts the good bones, and lets them work. When a point could be hammered home -- a "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" speech for Bale, or an "I'm more evil than you can imagine" flourish for Crowe -- the temptation is resisted, the point suggested or understated with an exchange of glances or a throw-away line. As you watch, that seems no more than the conventional laconic manner of the Western. Only afterward do you realize what a bravura display of confidence it really is: the movie can afford to trust you because it has you so completely in the palm of its hand.

Westerns have never been especially important or iconic to me. But 3:10 to Yuma skips my "best of the genre" list to take a place among my favorite movies.

Fallows and Cromwell

I've been catching up on Atlantic contributing editor James Fallows' weblog, and noticed the recurrence in recent posts of variations on the phrase "maybe it's just me, but..."

Now, usually when someone does that in public writing -- especially about contentious and polarized topics -- it's a little stroke of faux-humble snark. It signifies "Of course you, my readers, and all right-thinking people, agree with what I'm about to say."

But it seems to me that more often than not, Fallows means it, which is uncommon and admirable. He's a superlative reporter and hard-working writer. When you've invested that much in forming a conviction, and you're putting it out there in the hope of swaying others, it's natural to position it as the only conviction supportable by sweet reason. It's hard, it's unnatural,  to keep in mind that there may be a long road of persuasion ahead, that the rest of the world -- if it happens to be paying attention at all -- will take a while to Get It.

Maybe Fallows' "it's just me" is not an affectation or a tic, but a small intellectual (even spiritual) exercise to remind himself of that... sort of a vaccine against Pundits' Syndrome. Make it a habit, make an effort to mean it, and it could offer some modest protection against the temptations of crusade and fanaticism. Jacob Bronowski talked about that, standing in the ash fields of Auschwitz.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell was trying to persuade the Scots Presbyterians to abandon their support of Charles II, and famously wrote to their governing synod: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." The line has a double edge, of course, because Cromwell was himself a man of such bulldozer conviction. But hey: we take our moments of clarity when we can get them, even when the motes in others' eyes are so much more obvious than the beams in our own.

Boston Blinkie

I try not to clutter this space with the nine-day wonders, but the Boston bomb scare story  has "culture war" and "project your phobia" written all over it.

One netizen I respect commented: "I tend to think this kinda stuff isn't funny in this day and age."
GMAFB -- look at the photos. What do you see? This is is not a duffel bag artfully left open with wires, a bundle of highway flares, and a bit of clock face showing. This is not (as other stories called it) a "package." Even the WaPo's choice of the words "small electronic circuit boards" and "[a] magnetic object, which looked like circuit boards with protruding wires" is loaded. What this is, what you see, what was  located and positioned for passersby to see, is a display panel.

To anyone in this culture over the age of 14 months, it says Here I am, look at me

much louder than Mystery hardware in inappropriate location...

let alone Doh dee doh, nothin to see here foax, move along while I get ready to explode

Is it super-extra-suspicious because it's attached to a girder under a highway? I've spent many happy hours in New Jersey traffic jams approaching the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. I've seen thousands of non-official signs and other forms of display attached to girders under I-95 and US 1. My heartbeat stayed steady.

Does the display panel show red numbers counting balefully down to apocalypse? (Cut the blue wire, Bond... the blue wire!)

Does it show the Arabic characters for

Surrender Laura!
(And her little dog Barney, too!)

No, it shows a stylized, chunky-pixel block figure flipping the bird. I've never watched the Aqua Teen show... but I like to think I'd know if this were the globally recognized Logo of Doom, spray-painted by Hezbollah teens, thousand-stitched into kamikaze belts by Aum Shinrikyo fanatics, branded into the privy door at the Unabomber's country place.

I can readily understand a Boston train passenger calling to report a quick glimpse. I have no quarrel at all with the decision to send a patrolman, even a bomb team, to check it out. But from the first moment someone got a close look at it, the response should have been ratcheting down, not up.

Now Boston's press and politicians and prosecutors -- and a good chunk of the punditocracy, not all on the usual GWoT Team -- are all committed to righteous indignation, and will have a hard time backing down.

Prediction #1: Legal charges and damage claims will, nonetheless, be quietly dropped. Too much fun for defense counsel otherwise.

Prediction #2: Right now, enterprising reporters are poring through 911 logs for all the other cities involved (and for Boston previously) to find out how many times authorities could have given themselves a wedgie about these signs... and didn't.

That empty feeling

For the Pynchonistas, re the "hollow earth" passages in Against The Day and Mason & Dixon:

Courtesy of John M. Krafft, here's another photo of the tomb of John Cleve Symmes in Hamilton, Ohio. All comments about Levitra ads will be cheerfully ignored.

James Clerk Maxwell

This was written in 1979, with an eye to magazine publication on the 100th anniversary of Maxwell's death.
It never found a home in print. I still like it.

In the Field

Only a moment ago he asked Mrs. Murdoch to fetch his parents. Now all three are standing
in the kitchen doorway, but he is watching the reflection that dances above the stove, across
the ceiling. When he notices the adults, he mischievously flashes sunlight in their eyes.

Mr. Maxwell squints and raises a hand to block the glare, but his
voice is indulgent. "What are you up to now, Jamesie?"

"It's the sun, papa. I got it in with this tin plate."

Before the afternoon is over, Jamesie will roll the plate around
the pantry floor until Mrs. Murdoch sends him outside; beat it as
a drum, marching against Napoleon with the Iron Duke; fill it
with pink granite pebbles; empty it again, set it afloat on the
duck pond, and bombard it with pebbles until it is swamped by the
interlacing waves.


The antenna turns slowly against the spin of the earth, tracking
a galaxy eight billion light-years away. That far away, that long
ago, the galaxy's core was exploding with unimaginable violence.
Here and now, the radio outburst is almost lost in background
noise. Penzias and Wilson thought that the noise in their antenna
might be caused by pigeon droppings. Instead, it was the echo of
the Big Bang.


Where did the Big Bang go? Into waves.

Waves in what?

In the field. The electromagnetic field. Maxwell's field.

What is the field?

It's like the water in ocean waves. It's like the air in sound
waves. It's like the earth in seismic waves. It's like...

What is the field?

It's the sum of all the waves that ever were and all the waves
that will ever be.


Snark in spaaaace

"Which X-Treme Spacer Are You?"  is up at SpaceDaily, although the question mark failed to reach orbit.

It's much snarkier in tone than Down to Earth as a whole. I just needed to vent some of my impatience with those who want the thrill of space without the gritty work of either persuading taxpayers that it's worthwhile, or persuading investors that it's profitable.

Welcome: orientation

No, this is not Monte Davis the Florida realtor, Monte Davis the author of short SF stories, or Monte Davis the retired nuclear engineer.

This is the science and business writer, occasional teacher (Dalton, St. Michael's School, Temple), alumnus of Collegiate School, Princeton, and Sarah Lawrence College. I'm currently working on Down to Earth, a book about the midlife crisis in the Space Age as it approaches 50. If that's the kind of thing you like, you may like this journal. Email goes to montedavis AT verizon.net