Passing glances: Amazon, coincidences, and war

In a private forum on the Authors Guild website, a contributor recently posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece bearing the provocative headline “New York Should Say No to Amazon.” The op-ed began by reminding readers, “This week, word leaked that Amazon may be close to finalizing a deal to set up a major operation in Long Island City, Queens” (the link is in the original), and it went on to subject Amazon itself as well as its possible New York expansion to withering criticism. The forum contributor said he had previously favored the deal but now wasn’t so sure, and he asked for other responses. Because the moves, literal and otherwise, of major tech companies are a pressing concern in New York and elsewhere, I’m reposting here the response I wrote for the forum: Continue reading

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Reading notes: On Sam Mendes and long-form TV

The 9/24/18 issue of The New Yorker contains an excellent profile of director Sam Mendes by John Lahr, called “Showman” in the printed edition. It reports this, which I had never noticed:

Much to his union’s chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for “possessory credit”—you won’t find “A film by Sam Mendes” in the credits for any of his movies. A film, he said, “is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It’s not all me. It’s because of me.”

That comes off as a little less modest than Mendes may have thought, but it’s hard to judge how it sounded when he said it. In any case, it’s clear that he doesn’t think a film comes to exist solely because of him.

Something else that struck me was this: Continue reading

Memory and humility: Two notes on Brett Kavanaugh

One: During the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, disagreements arose over what would seem to be basic facts, such as whether Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Blasey Ford at a party or whether Kavanaugh even attended a party where Ford was present. One thing that’s important to keep in mind while wrestling with questions of what really happened and what it means is that memory can be an unreliable witness. Continue reading

Passing glances: Where Leonard Bernstein meets R.E.M.

This blog has been on vacation. If I had a greater sense of responsibility, I would’ve hung a sign over the image at the top of the landing page saying, “Gone fission—back sooner or later,” but making that look right would’ve taken some work, which is just what I’ve been trying to avoid lately. Are we still on vacation? The Magic 8 Ball prognosticator says, “Ask again later.” Meanwhile, there’s this.

Over the weekend I found myself thinking of how R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe gave a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein amid the rapid-fire, seemingly random patter of the band’s song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” released in 1987. Continue reading

‘The Americans’: Playing the game of Great Power politics in the 80s

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans.

Killer looks: Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings in a somewhat stylized promotional image for The Americans. (Photo: via FX)

The Americans, an FX drama about two undercover Soviet agents living with their two children near Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, is hurtling toward the conclusion of its sixth and final season. Though it has always kept its hand in the action and intrigue of the spy game, its recent seasons have become more moody, brooding, punctuated with anxious silences—one acquaintance of mine felt it lost its mojo and stopped watching—yet the action has recently picked up again as the show maneuvers its pieces toward a resolution. Continue reading

How ’bout them robot cowboys?! A few notes on ‘Westworld’

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Season 1, Episode 5, of Westworld.

Not the farmer’s daughter anymore: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Season 1, Episode 5, of Westworld. (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)

In 1973, a movie called Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, was released. It’s easy to say what it was about: two visitors to an Old West amusement park that’s mostly populated by androids are terrorized by a robot gunslinger run amok. It was straightforward, so simple as to seem nearly crude now, and nearly mindless (in comparison to the sophistication of early modern robot tales such as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but it embodied a long-bubbling fear about machines, automation, and the dehumanizing effects of technology (many shots are devoted to the highly computerized control room and the inscrutable exchanges of the technicians), and it made potent use of the entertainment world’s oldest special effect, actors, in the form of Yul Brynner’s black-clad, glint-eyed, swaggering gunslinger.

In October 2016, HBO launched a series called Westworld, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. (Spoilers lie ahead.) Much remains the same, but much is different. Continue reading

Bedlam’s fresh but respectful take on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’

Say a male phonetics professor rescues a female guttersnipe from the gutter, teaches her to speak the English of the upper classes, and passes her off as a duchess—what then? As nearly everyone will recognize, this is the situation presented by the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady and, before that, by Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which is currently being presented by the Bedlam company in New York. Nowadays the play seems more obvious than it must have when it was first presented, roughly 100 years ago, in part because the musical has made the story familiar, in part because the source myth—that of Pygmalion and Galatea—is itself still familiar, and in part because numerous debates have made us well aware of the role language and speech play in social distinctions. Yet, if Shaw’s play is obvious, it’s also subtly provocative, and it’s capable of resonating in ways not anticipated by Shaw. Continue reading