Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Broadening Your Event Horizon

Pandora by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1882)
You go to an otolaryngologist for throat problems, but an ichthyologist if you’re the old man in the Hemingway novel and want to know what fish your wrestling with. Herpetologists are consulted about the representation of snakes in Egyptian mythology and if you want to understand Vladimir Nabokov, who collected butterflies, then you’d better know your lepidoptera. See an arachnologist if you have a question about spiders. If you’re interested in charitable matters then get used to the word eleemosynary and if you’re the kind of person who is always anticipating questions don’t feel bad if you’re accused of prolepsis. It could be worse. You could be rebarbative or morganatic, which is to say that you may be one of the royalty, but you won’t be able to pass on your title. There are so many more quotidian words to describe human aspirations. I’d rather be a quisling than a person who sells out his own country. I’d rather suffer the psychoanalytic condition of après coup than a mere trauma. Bipolarity and borderline disorders are such ubiquitous diagnoses these days that they literal demand bigger words with little tails like casus belli. I would much rather suffer a paraphilia than be a simply pervert. Irredentism is a conversation stopper, but what would you prefer an ugly silence or another boring and destructive civil war since there are always those little breakaways that are not going to happily allow themselves to be reconstituted into the whole. Are you just a utilitarian who’s read his Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill or consequentialist? Getting down and dirty do you follow the Chicago school and supply side economics or do you hearken back to Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism? Call a spade a spade. Don’t settle for being a game theorist when you can, following Philippa Foot, become a prodigy of trolleyology. Why study loss aversion when you can pursue neuro-economics? Tinnitus is annoying, but tintinnabulation can be majestic. Everyone wants a six pack, but an extended word is not a distended stomach. It need not be a Pandora’s Box. It’s a form of prestidigitation that will broaden your event horizon.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3 (Delacroix, 1843)
A waffle is a delicious breakfast food that's usually served with maple syrup, but in its verb form it means to be indecisive or titter on the brink of one action or another. The gerund constructed from the verb refers to a state of being that manifests both individually in say the ambivalence of an uncommitted relationship or collectively in the kind of indecision that countries or leaders or often accused of. President Obama was criticized for waffling when it came to responding to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. But let’s go back to the everyday waffle for help. Pancakes which are made from a similar batter generally have a smooth surface though their edges may be somewhat irregular due to the way the batter is poured into the griddle on which they’re cooked. A waffle on the other hand, which is usually cooked in an iron, has rectilinear edges with a surface that's punctured by squares or rectangles which are smaller versions of the whole. The waffle then is a little like a play within a play and therein lies the basis of waffling. What is the most famous play within a play of all time? The “Murder of the Gonzago,” in Hamlet and of course Hamlet is the greatest waffler of all time. He doesn’t even know whether he himself wants to be or not. Indecision can be a curse and Hamlet suffers from the doubting disease. But did his neurosis go back to his problems growing up in the shadow of his father in Elsinore. Was he the eponymous waffler? And was president Obama perhaps given too many waffles as a kid? Perhaps after finishing his monumental history of Johnson, Robert Caro will turn his attention to Obama and we will finally know.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Inherent Vice

At the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, LA Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who sports a flattop busts down the front door of the private eye Larry “Doc” Sportella's (Joacquin Phoenix) house. In Anderson’s The Master Phoenix played Freddie Quell, the primitive on whom Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hofmann), the L. Ron Hubbard type figure of the title, will attempt to work his cure. In Inherent Vice, Phoenix as a dopper investigator has a similar animal energy, but the goodness, as well as his potential a Christian soldier, is less camouflaged.    Bigfoot puffs on Doc’s joint, then eats the roach, and his whole tray of marijuana leaves, Zig Zag papers and all. “Are you OK, brother,” Doc asks. “I’m not your brother,” Bigfoot says, “But you could use a keeper,” says Doc. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was based on an Upton Sinclair novel and Inherent Vice is adapted from the Pynchon. The Master which was about the attempt to change human beings, wasn’t based on anyone’s novel. However, in revisiting the origins of scientology, one of the most perverse forms of therapy ever conceived, in a supra-realistic setting (reminiscent in some ways of the vertiginous realism Kazan employed in East of Eden), the movie  exuded the density and intensity of a great l9th century novel— like say Zola’s Germinal. But Inherent Vice is neither a movie with novelistic leanings nor simply a good adaptation (nor by the way are it or any of Anderson’s other aforementioned films, period pieces--though Inherent Vice and The Master do have the courage to sport the now anomalous and forbidden sight of women with actual pubic hair). It's a novel in film form, a complex modernist work inspired by the work equally complex writer. Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a realtor who’s building a massive development called Channel View Estates surrounds himself with members of the Aryan Brotherhood, despite his Jewish background. He gets kidnapped and tells Doc “I made people pay money for shelter and all along I didn’t realize, it was supposed to be free.” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), Doc’s former girlfriend, who has run off with Mickey says about him, “Mickey was so powerful he could almost make you feel invisible.” Golden Fang Enterprises presided over by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a dentist, is a drug cartel that runs on the principle of "vertical integration" and owns a death ship (a la B. Traven) called The Golden Fang. They provide the drugs and profit from their addicted clientele’s stay at the rehab they run. The locutions and conceits come fast and furious as does the unpredictable soundtrack which finishes with Chuck Jackson’s 60’s soul classic “Any Day Now,” rather than a more predictably druggy sound. So much is going on that you feel you're on the defensive, intellectually at least.  You almost wish this movie version of the Pynchon novel were a book whose pages you could flip back and forth in at will.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Selma and The Interview

If you think Selma is a film about your mother’s best friend, then perhaps you believe that The Interview is a comedy about Kim Jong-un’s psychoanalysis (that is if you are too scared to go see it, purchase the streamed version or even read the reviews). If you believe that Selma is about your mother’s best friend you will also be able to picture the North Korean dictator on the couch in the Pyongyang office of Dr. Carl Jung-il. One of the things doctor and patient are working through is Kim Jong-un’s feeling of entitlement. This is the real reason for the hacking and the threats against the major theater chains who were scheduled to exhibit the film. You will imagine a film based on secret transcripts of Kim Jong-un’s psychoanalytic sessions, which have been bugged by Sony. This is not to justify the fury of the response, but it should be noted that few patients in analysis or any other form of therapy like to have their dirty laundry aired and there's no doubt that the issue of entitlement is a profound one for a figure who has taken on the title of Supreme Leader. Analysis is a very expensive form of therapy and outside of Kim Jong-un, there are few other North Koreans who could afford Carl Jung-il’s fees— comparable, as they are, to those of New York analysts who charge upwards of $400 per hour. In your imagination of what the film is about, you envision the actor playing Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) getting very upset when the encrypted recordings of his sessions with Dr Carl Jung-il are deciphered by a character who is described as the Alan Turing of South Korean intelligence. You see Kim Jong-un terminating his analysis with Dr. Carl Jung-il, by placing his once beloved analyst before a firing squad.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Ava DuVernay’s Selma could be subtitled “behind the scenes of a hagiography.” Apart from the stock footage of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery it’s not cinema verite in the style of say The Battle of Algiers. Despite the graphic depictions of violence, it’s just too slick; DuVernay’s paints her Guernica on Selma's Edmund Pettus bridge and it’s almost beautiful. But the strength of the movie lies in its depiction of nonviolence as strategy. “Our lives are not fully lived until we are ready to die for those we loved,” King (David Oyelowo) says. He possesses a sculpture of Gandhi, yet it’s plain non-violence is as much a weapon as a principle for him. Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the sheriff of Selma is a perfect foil for the protests as Bull Connor was in Birmingham. In Albany, Georgia the sheriff, Laurie Pritchett, had removed the demonstrators on stretchers and that was not what King wanted. It didn’t create either sympathy or headlines. Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), making a cameo appearance, tries to employ the idea of another kind of strategy. He’ll incite violence in order to make the authorities regard King as the lesser of two evils. It’s a form of gamesmanship that King isn’t ready to buy. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you,” Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) tells George Wallace (Tim Roth). But it’s not surprising to see one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century or all time adding to the chorus of realpolitik that’s the movie’s recurring leitmotif. Neither the tensions in King’s marriage nor his infidelities are glossed over and they in turn are exploited by yet one more power player, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker)—who unsuccessfully tries to use them to throttle King’s charismatic drive. The real march of the movie is towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act of l965 with Lyndon Johnson lamely proclaiming “we shall overcome.” Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), the conflict between John Lewis’s (Stephan James) SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and King’s SCLC (South Christian Leadership Conference) are all part of the tableau—which, on the basis of recent headlines, poses the troubling question of whether much has really changed?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

If Only John Dillinger Had Memorized His Multiplication Tables

John Dillinger
It used to be that if you wanted to get rich quick, you’d rob a bank. Now all you have to do is to become a math wiz. Here’s how much you can make as a math wiz. The Times reported that Maxim Kontsevich “who works at the Institute of advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris, won the 2012 Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences an honor accompanied by $1 million award. Then a couple of months later, he was among nine people who received a new physics prize—and $3 million each—from Yuri Milner, a Russian who dropped out of graduate studies in physics and became a successful investor in Internet companies like Facebook. A few weeks ago, Dr. Kontsevich heard from Mr. Milner again. Mr. Milner told him he was one of five inaugural winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, financed by Mr. Milner and Mark Zuckerberg” (“The Multimillion-Dollar Minds of5 Mathematical Masters,” NYT, 6/23/14). The Breakthrough pays $3 million. So that’s a total of $7 million which is not a bad payday. On a salary scale it almost puts a top mathematician on par with the CEO of a major bank, though not quite. Jamie Dimon, the top dog at JP. Morgan Chase got $20 million in a year in which his bank was forced to pay out over $20 billion in settlements (“Dimon Gets Raise After Rough Year,” WSJ, 1/24/14) But surely the kind of math involved in derivatives would be small potatoes for someone like Kontesevich. If you’re a math wiz you're going to be able parley your winnings into the kind of big bucks earned by Hedge Fund honchos like SAC Capital’s equally embattled Steven A. Cohen. What math wizs like Kontsevich have over bank chairmen and hedge fund meisters is that they don’t have to issue questionable securities or fall under suspicion because of their subordinates off color trading practices.  For them making a fortune is even easier than robbing a bank.