Capsule movie review: Master and Commander

I saw Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World over the holiday weekend. I liked it better than I thought I would. I hasten to add that I’m not the kind of person who always insists that the book was better than the movie; such people are, on the whole, irritating. But I’m a fan of O’Brian’s novels, and I wasn’t sure how I’d react to seeing the books filtered through someone else’s imagination. Plus I’m not that fond of Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, yes; Gladiator, not so much). Master and Commander worked as an action movie and as a period piece; one got a vivid sense of the constant activity on board ship, and of just how terrifying it must have been to be in a naval battle with cannonballs smashing holes in the sides of the ship. Also of the horrors of weevils in the hardtack, emergency surgery belowdecks, and the threat of imminent drowning. And there was a nice use of late-18th-century music for the scenes in which Aubrey and Maturin play their duets for violin and cello. Joseph Duemer liked it for a lot of the same reasons that I did. It was a bit jarring to see Jack Aubrey talking to his crew about "leadership," but for the most part, I thought it worked.

But where was Stephen Maturin? The film’s Dr. Maturin is a brilliant surgeon, a scientist, and Jack’s best friend, all of which is there in the novels. But — and here I differ with Dale — I missed the Dr. Maturin who spies for the British (despite his conflicting loyalties), falls desperately in love with a woman who keeps rejecting him, gets hooked on laudanum and cocaine, and turns out to be a a deadly opponent in a duel as well as learned enough to recite the Aeneid in Latin while delirious with fever in book 3 of the series. Oh, just go read Terry Teachout’s take on Christopher Hitchens’ take on the question. Me, I’m going to go reread The Mauritius Command and Desolation Island.

Words that should be banned from widespread usage (part 1 in an ongoing series)

After grading the better part of my students’ next-to-last round of essays, I think I can now safely say that if I never have to read the phrase "relate to," used as a synonym for "empathize with," "understand," or "identify with," again, I will die happy.

And while I’m at it, I never again want to see the words "extreme" or "ultimate" used in any sports-related or sports-metaphor-related context whatsoever. No more "extreme [fill in name of sport]" or "ultimate this-or-that experience." No more. Basta così!

Not, I hasten to add, that any of these usages are confined to student writing. They’re everywhere, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong about saying that you can "relate to" something — but when you see it in half a dozen papers in a row, you begin to get tired, and you can’t even explain why you want to object to its overuse, and anyway you’ve got bigger things to comment on and you have to finish the stack by the end of the weekend, so you don’t have time to stop and think about what you’re complaining about, just that you’re cranky about spending the weekend grading.

But "extreme" and "ultimate" are just annoying. So is "very unique." And I’m tired. That is all.

Thanksgiving, a day after the fact

My friend T. and I were going to have a fabulously low-key Thanksgiving get-together, but we were both too low-key to organize it in a timely manner, so the cooking and eating and the hanging out and the movie-watching will take place a day later instead. There may be some redundancy in the menu, as T. has been making pumpkin pies and I roasted a whole pumpkin to make into some sort of side dish. With cumin seeds, I think. Possibly some cardamom. And maybe a bit of tamarind paste. But we’ll be eating other things besides orange gourds, and then we will be watching fluffy movies starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger. (And those two shouldn’t have been cast in the same movie because of the rhyming-names factor. McGregor-Zellweger. Infelicitous!) And then, back to the grading marathon.

Happy (post-)Thanksgiving to one and all!

Found poetry from knitting books

Thumbing through Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns and A Second Treasury of Knitting Patterns in search of lace patterns I can actually make without losing track of where I am,* I keep coming across patterns with oddly poetic names. Consider, for instance:

Parenthetical Rib
All Fools’ Welt
Tilting Ladder
Crest of the Wave
Dry Bones Cable
Gordian Knot
Homes of Donegal
Dragon Skin
Pillar and Web
Ostrich Plumes
Flying Buttress
Inverted Gull
Crazy Maypole
The Cloisters
Candle of Glory
Telescope Lattice
Wings of the Swan
Odin’s Eagles
Syncopated Brioche

("Syncopated Brioche" is my favorite, with "Dry Bones Cable" a close second.)

* I’m looking for lace patterns because I found a skein of this yarn in indigo, purple, and green on sale, and there’s enough in it for an entire shawl and then some.

Personal anthology: Wallace Stevens

Man Carrying Thing

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

— Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems

A few days ago there was a comment thread (now closed) at 2 Blowhards about "Greats I don’t get": great art that leaves one cold, even when one understands why other people admire it.* Some of the replies — especially the comments by people who describe how they didn’t get something on the first reading/listening/viewing, but changed their minds years later — made me wonder about the tipping point, the moment where something you never used to like starts to look different, to make you sit up and pay attention.

I didn’t "get" Wallace Stevens at first. Too abstract, too philosophical, too intimidating. I’d read the standard anthology favorites and been bewildered: I mean, who gets "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" right away, even if one knows it’s "about" a funeral? Stevens seems to demand a kind of Keatsian negative capability from his readers, a willingness to go along with the poems’ sometimes entirely successful attempts to resist the intelligence. What I didn’t get, initially, was how playful his poems can be, how full of goofy sound effects (ai-yi-yi’s and hoo-hoo’s and tink-a-tink’s) and surreally comic moments. Not to mention his way with titles: "The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade." "Excerpts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas." "Dance of the Macabre Mice." It was the playfulness (which, granted, is more prominent in the earlier poems than in the later ones) that drew me in; I think at some point I recognized that Stevens didn’t hesitate to veer into nonsense and "gawdiness" amidst the philosophical seriousness that initially put me off.

And it helps if one knows that his favorite topic is poetry itself, and how it does and doesn’t approximate "things as they are" (I’m thinking of "The Man with the Blue Guitar"). I like "Man Carrying Thing" because of the way it grapples with the mismatch between "obvious whole" and "parts not quite perceived," the blizzard of small "uncertain particles" that falls around the reader. Which is how I often feel while reading Stevens, in fact.

* Side note: It makes me rather sad to see so many people putting "opera in general" in their "don’t get" lists. And I could tell several stories about how I wasn’t much interested in opera until my college roommate splurged on a good recording of The Marriage of Figaro and played it over and over and somewhere along the line I was hooked. Or about how Baroque opera wasn’t my favorite thing until I saw Handel’s Xerxes performed live and had one of those "Hey, I get it!" epiphanies. But that’s matter for another post.

Testing, testing

[taps microphone, listens for feedback noise]

Hello? Is this thing on?

Well, as you can see, I’ve moved. Importing of my old blog will commence as soon as I’m really desperate not to grade papers.

In the meantime, update your bookmarks!