Displaying articles for: February 2008

Pierrot Le Fou

Jean-Luc Godard?s Pierrot Le Fou is many things -- none of which you can quite put your finger on. A giddy thriller, a political polemic masquerading as a musical, a love story that?s also a discourse on art; this 1965 masterpiece finds its fabled director just about to ford the stream to where radical politics, and equally radical film form, take precedence over relative accessibility. Not that Pierrot hand-holds the viewer. As was his manner in the first near-decade of his career, Godard indulges freely in the elliptical, the outrageously cartoonish, and the didactic, breaking the illusionary Fourth Wall with impunity. Plot becomes secondary to the disparate musings of the director as voiced by his filmic counterparts, the glorious duo of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, Godard?s wife at the time. Saturated in bombastically beautiful color by way of Raoul Coutard?s eye-popping cinematography, Pierrot, and the following year?s Masculin/Feminine, cap off an audacious run of signature Godard works that commenced with the big bang of Breathless in 1959. Very much of its time -- critical jabs at the Vietnam War and American cultural and economic imperialism run rampant throughout -- Pierrot is simultaneously an irreverent, riotously funny critique of bourgeois life and an elemental, poignant account of a relationship running into the ground. No wonder Godard?s early work remains the template for contemporary directors who still gaze in wonder at how effortlessly he kept so many balls in the air at once, all the while giving the appearance that he was improvising the whole shoot on the fly. Admire Tarantino and his ilk all you will, but never overlook the daddy of them all. -

The Lodger Shakespeare

At first glance, this book's premise hardly seems book-worthy. In 1612, Stephen Belott, feeling cheated out of his dowry, brought a suit against his father-in-law, Christopher Mountjoy. One of the witnesses called to testify was Mountjoy's former lodger, William Shakespeare. Whatever his sense of the potential theatricality of foiled marriages and in-law relations, the Bard isn't very revelatory and fails to wax poetic on the witness stand. He claims not to remember much about what happened. The event -- our only record of Shakespeare's spoken words ever being recorded -- was unearthed by an intrepid researcher in 1909. It's remained largely unremarked for a century. Nevertheless, it offers a window, however narrow, into Shakespeare's daily life and dealings. Charles Nichol, to his credit, illuminates that window. He's studiously exhumed what faint traces of early Jacobean times remain in the parish where Shakespeare briefly resided, fleshed out the context of the case, and elaborated the place in London society of Shakespeare's French landlords. What arrives through this meticulous upending is not so much a portrait, but a series of faint glimpses of the playwright at one moment of his otherwise mysterious life, as well as of the odd backdrop against which he chose for a time to prop it. At times, the very ordinariness of the life revealed is the book's exhilaration, while at others the pleasure is glimpsing a world whose mores and artifacts are almost wholly lost to us. Nichols manages to make both types of revelation suspenseful. -

An Incomplete Revenge

Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear's amateur sleuth who has been dented and damaged by World War I shell shock, has a lot on her hands in her fifth outing, An Incomplete Revenge. There's the case at hand: James Compton, son of her former employers, asks her to investigate "some funny business" surrounding an estate he's planning to buy in Kent. Toss in arson, petty theft, the death of a close friend, and lingering ghosts from the War to End All Wars, and you've got enough to make even the most stout-hearted Sherlock weak-kneed. But Maisie's heart is nothing if not stout, and she handles every setback with pluck and cool-headedness. The local villagers, still bitter over a wartime Zeppelin attack on their town, remain close-mouthed and suspicious of outsiders prying into the past, but Maisie continues her investigation, cutting through "the layers of truth and the web of lies that held a story together." While Winspear's writing has its faults -- a distracting need to give a head-to-toe description of each character's appearance and apparel, trite dialogue, and an overall lack of subtlety -- the Maisie Dobbs mysteries have an undeniable appeal. Much of this stems from Maisie's character: cool and enigmatic on the surface, she is like a porcelain vase that has been shattered and glued back together. In An Incomplete Revenge, she must face not only her own past but also the wounded spirit of Britain, which is still recovering from combat two decades after the Armistice. The crimes at the Kent estate nearly recede into the background as Maisie discovers the case is really one about national healing and reconciliation. -

Physics for Entertainment

The name of Yakov Perelman (1882-1942), Russian science popularizer, will raise very few associations with even an expert English-speaking audience, due to his lifelong unavailability in American editions. But this regrettable deficit is now remedied with the publication of his charming, albeit quaintly archaic Physics for Entertainment. A facsimile of a 1975 Soviet printing (in English, of course) of Perelman's 1936 text, the book exudes a rudimentary atmosphere of simpler times, before quantum weirdness, Big Bang cosmology, and Grand Unified Theories came to dominate our understanding of the universe. In ten neatly organized chapters, Yakov explicates the Newtonian paradigm with cleverly contrived experiments, of both the practical, hands-on variety and the thought-only kind. (Unless, of course, you're up for drilling an actual tunnel through the earth's core.) Many -- such as the counterintuitive trick of causing a flask of prepared water to boil by cooling it! -- still retain teaching power, while others involving magnets and compasses, for instance, seem drained of power to stimulate much curiosity. Useful, uncredited illustrations evoke a Mechanix Illustrated/"Gasoline Alley" era, when every backyard tinkerer felt competent to whip together a homemade barometer or steam turbine. An unabashed fan of early science fiction, Perelman draws lessons from the novels of Wells and Verne and Kurd Lasswitz, among others. Closing his book by categorizing it as a "motley handful of simple facts?culled?from a boundless domain of knowledge," Perelman humbly hopes he's stimulated interest in his passion -- and in the fulfillment of this hope he may indeed rest content. -

Moral Disorder and Other Stories

One of the silliest ideas about the uses of fiction is that it should offer lessons in how one should live. But sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Margaret Atwood manages to cram so much spiky wisdom into her work that sometimes they do seem like a primer in the lives of intellectual women of the 20th century. The stories in Moral Disorder do not quite add up to a novel, nor are they explicitly linked. Some are told in first person; others in third. But taken together, they may comprise the life of one woman, with a husband named Tig and a difficult younger sister, offered up in slices from different decades. The collection begins with a couple in late middle age, juxtaposing the cozy breakfast table togetherness with the daily ritual of absorbing the bad news from the world. Atwood's woman -- called Nell in some of the stories -- grows up with conventional expectations in the '50s, genuinely fascinated with homemaking manuals and knitting a layette set for her much younger sister, for whom she will serve as a nearly surrogate parent. During the '60s and '70s, she is in turn an unmarried scholar, a step-parent, and a second wife living on a rural farm. Atwood's particular genius has always been a lack of squeamishness at showing how women can sabotage each other. This comes out especially well in a section on the "dumb bunnies" of classic literature, told from the viewpoint of a high school girl, and the character of Oona, the purportedly feminist, extremely high maintenance first wife of Nell's husband for whom Nell does several extraordinary favors. Atwood, of course, belongs nowhere near the self-help section, but her characters wrestle with the big problems of daily life with an intellectual intensity that feels nearly instructive. -

Made in the Dark

Call it revenge of the nerds. Looking more like sci-fi convention attendees than rock stars, London five-piece Hot Chip began their career early this decade by channelling early-'90s funk and hip-hop, through the perspective of middle-class Londoners. This, of course, got them tagged as a novelty act, a perception corrected by 2006's seriously good The Warning, which topped critics' polls and gave them two U.K. hits. Meanwhile, Hot Chip were gaining a reputation as formidable live performers who refused to rely on laptops or sequencers, and in-demand remix artists. Made in the Dark exudes the confidence of experience -- it sounds like little if any regard was given to public expectations. Songwriters Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard indulge in nearly every musical whim that comes to them, and it nearly all works. Occasionally you wish someone had told them no: the otherwise storming dance track "Shake a Fist" stops dead in its tracks for a sampled bit of Todd Rundgren studio chatter. But Hot Chip have more ideas in any 30 seconds than most groups do on a whole album, so it's easy to cut the group a little slack. Standouts include the groovy, guitar-heavy "One Pure Thought"; "Wrestlers," a witty R. Kelly-esque slow jam that views a relationship as a no-holds-barred cage match; and the title track, as lovely and genuine a ballad as you're likely to hear this year. Maybe not what you'd expect from a group who also have a song called "Crap Kraft Dinner," but Hot Chip have come to defy preconceptions -- other than that whatever they do is worth hearing. -

The Adventures of Amir Hamza

Imagine that Homer's great epics weren't transcribed until the 19th century and continued to live as oral performances over the years. As they circulated around the Mediterranean, they no doubt would absorb much of the local custom and color; enriched by various traditions, they'd even pick up bits of new verse. Well, that's exactly the history of this magnificent compendium of fantastical storytelling, an Urdu-Persian adventure narrative that's every bit as compelling as the best the West has to offer. The tales of the super-heroic Amir Hamza have entertained listeners in Arabic, Turkish, and Indonesian languages (among others) ever since the 9th century and have come to great prominence, especially in Muslim India, where in the 19th century these tales of conquest and conversion were written down in the form here translated for the first time into English. Reading this huge and never-ending story, you're likely to recall Arthurian romance as much as ancient Greece. At the core is the legendary Hamza ("the Conqueror of the World, the Quake of Qaf, the Latter-day Suleiman, and Uncle of the Last Prophet of Times"): as defender of the One True Faith and warrior of chivalric principle, he crosses the subcontinent, defeating all those who refuse to renounce fire worship or threaten the kingdom of Emperor Naushervan. He even contends with evil spirits during a long sojourn in the spirit world. Separated from his true love for 18 years, Hamza brings justice everywhere he goes, often accompanied by his loyal Ayyar, who's part trickster and part magician, an Asiatic Merlin. Highly moral in outlook, these tales of Islamic triumph also revel in much merrymaking -- Hamza enjoys his many wives, all of them quite powerful women in their own right, and their lovemaking is always stimulated by "flagons of roseate wine." No fundamentalism here, but a wonderful reminder of Islam at its most magnanimous, and as inspiration to a great work of world literature. -

American Movie Critics

Everyone's a movie critic. To care deeply about film is to succumb to the need to talk, or write, about what the eye has just absorbed from the screen. It's been that way since the poet Vachel Lindsay waxed rhapsodic about "the photoplay of action"; and it has exploded in the past 50 years, as film criticism has earned enough respect to be taken seriously as a profession. Phillip Lopate favors us with this extensive (though not exhaustive) anthology of film criticism, a wide-ranging and often surprising anthology that ranges from the scholarly (Stanley Cavell) to the snarky (Paul Rudnick). Lopate proves an astute and playful shepherd through material including Carl Sandburg on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ("he craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house"); Otis Ferguson on Cagney ("nobody's fool and nobody's clever ape?frankly vulgar in the best sense"); and Pauline Kael on Kubrick's 2001 ("a monumentally unimaginative movie"). At nearly every turn, you'll find erudite dissections of how particular films play upon our psyche and emotions and why movies, for better or worse, have become our national dialogue. -

Oh My Darling

With her penchant for floppy hats and her pale blonde hair, London, Ontario?based Basia Bulat could pass for a high school girl. But her music so perfectly evokes decades of the classic chanteuse that one feels she would be equally at home on the am dial alongside Joni Mitchell, playing festivals with Tonya Donnelly or Liz Phair in her acoustic period, or opening for the likes of Sondre Lerche and Loney, Dear (which she actually has done). Bulat's debut album, Oh My Darling, opens with a song about first love, accompanied only by ukulele, simple handclaps, and Bulat's own throaty, magnificently distinguished voice. Though that voice alone could make a career, Bulat plays guitar, banjo, ukulele, saxophone, flute, upright bass, and autoharp; the latter makes for a striking image when she breaks it out onstage at rock clubs. She moves easily from barely-there instrumentation to symphonic compositions. Brother Bobby's drums lend some rock 'n' roll to the proceedings, especially on the rollicking single "In the Night." While Bulat would fit nicely on a mix tape alongside contemporaries Feist and Becky Sharp of Lavender Diamond, one could imagine that particular tape could be passed along to both the college kids and their parents and sound familiar to each group. -

Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob

It was easy enough to turn off the TV after an hour of watching restaurateur Artie Bucco get pushed around by beefy fellas back when The Sopranos was on, but it's a little more uncomfortable to read about the same kinds of goings-on in Bob Delaney's fascinating chronicle of his life undercover as a mobster back in the mid-'70s. Even with all the dated James Bond hidden-microphone tricks, the constant bullying of various hoods, and the endless array of Mob names (Pappy, Lucky, Fat Anthony, Johnny Dee, Charlie Cup of Coffee, etc.), what may be the most fascinating section of the book is Delaney's re-entry into the real world after three years of living as a mobster. The massive arrests have been made, the court gavels have been pounded, but the still-young Delaney feels guilt for turning in friends and a resultant psychich tumult: "The granite foundation of my self-image preceding my undercover assignment had given way to shifting sands of doubt and worry," he writes. It's enough to finally send him back onto the basketball courts that he loved as a kid, back where he can lose himself fully in a different set of rules that take him to the top of that field as an NBA ref, where he finds a way to live with the conundrum of being a man with a price on his head who travels from one massive arena to the next each night. Be glad he's chosen to take that risk as well as tell his tale. -

President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman

Abraham Lincoln?s performance as president earned him immortality, so it?s easy to forget how ill suited the uneducated backcountry politician initially seemed for the job. William Lee Miller?s reverential new biography, which follows 2002?s Lincoln?s Virtues and covers Lincoln?s years in the White House, argues that our 16th president?s inexperience was never a liability, for his greatness resided in the uncommon moral conviction with which he steered the Union through the Civil War and brought an end to slavery. Lincoln felt certain that the secession of the Southern states would not just diminish the nation but would destroy it altogether, and he was always mindful of the significance that the success of the United States, as a popular, republican government, would have to the rest of the world. Through a wealth of fascinating examples, Miller establishes that the leader?s reputation for kindness and charity was well earned, but he reveals another side of Lincoln, a relentless commander-in-chief willing to suffer inconceivable losses in a devastating war precisely because he saw it as a righteous undertaking. He was also willing to risk his political future: in a display of principle difficult to imagine today, Lincoln refused to sacrifice emancipation or otherwise compromise his beliefs on prosecuting the war in order to rescue his flailing 1864 reelection bid (?What is the presidency to me if I have no country?? he responded when urged by his party to postpone a military draft until after the election). We of course know from the outset how this insightful, compelling book will end, but by the time Miller reaches that April 1865 night at Ford?s Theater, the loss feels more crushing than ever. -


One's first assumption when approaching a book titled Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them is that the book will be lightweight fluff , superficially assembling pop-culture iconography relating to the topic. But that's a lazy assumption, and David Anderegg's book is a thorough testament to how lazy assumptions relating to the conceptual category "nerd" have fostered unnecessary bitterness and wasted potential, both to individuals and our society as a whole. Anderegg's stone-serious thesis is that this category an entirely constructed social straitjacket arising from a host of buried cultural biases, both learned and hardwired into our deeper natures. A teacher, children's psychotherapist and keen observer of media, Anderegg sets out to define -- and dismantle -- this destructive paradigm. In fairness, he likewise laments the many ways that the "pops" (the cool kids) also suffer from such artificial dichotomies. While he does privilege certain elements of the nerdly Weltanschauung, he is mostly intent on eliminating cruelty to all classes and bettering the flawed educational system where such pernicious memes breed. Rich with contrarian insights -- Anderegg's text is highly persuasive, readable, and quotable. "Disney's High School Musical?may, in fact, be the final nail in the coffin of American competitiveness?" Try trotting out that observation at the next PTA meeting you attend, and see how long it takes for the other parents to label you a nerd. -

God Save the Fan

In my experience, most casual sports fans are unaware of Deadspin.com, the irreverent David to ESPN's Goliath. But Will Leitch's increasingly popular blog, which delivers "sports news without access, favor, or discretion," has become a destination for diehard sports fans eager to propose and discuss issues (say, Michael Vick's herpes?) that mainstream media won't touch. Leitch, who launched Deadspin in September 2005, describes the genesis of this fan movement away from traditional sports journalism in God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third Person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Taken the Fun Out of Sports (And How We Can Get It Back). If the title sounds long-winded, so are portions of the book, a sometimes witty manifesto infused with personal essays and social commentary. Its 295 pages make it clear that Leitch, who plays in 11 (!) fantasy sports leagues, doesn't have much respect for professional athletes. "Outside of the production of stats, athletes are pointless," he writes. That's certainly questionable. What's unquestionable, however, is that sports devotees are flocking to Deadspin (844,000 unique visitors per month) and that even casual fans may soon be turning to renegade reporters like Will Leitch for their daily fix. -

The World from Beginnings to 4000 B.C.E.

The hominid fossil record begins some seven million years ago with species that are like humans but not human. But on what basis do we identify members of our own family and say that they are not merely humanlike but human? Ian Tattersall makes it clear that we haven't figured it out, and that this is what makes paleo-anthropology an interesting -- and very human -- endeavor. In this brief volume Tattesall can only hit the high points of the fossil chronology, such as "Lucy" "Turkana Boy," and "Peking Man." More important is his demonstration of how the sparse fossil record combines with the superabundance of life on earth to make questions of human identity and origins particularly challenging. Given the fluid concept of species itself -- as many definitions "as there are naturalists" -- can there be a standard definition of a human? "Defining" characteristics such as big brains and small canine teeth have come and gone. Upright posture is the current favorite, but Tattersall looks beyond the singular to complex combinations of traits that are greater than the sum of their parts. Whatever it was (probably language) and wherever we place it, such a combination separates Homo sapiens from all the other hominids that ever were; not least, perhaps, the capacity for self-reflection that motivates us to look into our own beginnings. -

The Last Emperor

For director Bernardo Bertolucci, the political is always personal -- and always pretty. His 1987 epic bites off a mighty chunk of history and social upheaval -- China from the last vestiges of its monarchy to Mao?s Cultural Revolution -- but confines its observations to the point of view of Pu Yi, the titular protagonist. And the end of an era has never looked so good. From the early days of Bertolucci's Before the Revolution (1964) and the still startling Conformist (1970), the director has reveled in a conflicted world view that calls for radical political change while embracing the opulent, with communism and a buffed-up Art Deco set design all in the same pizza pie. The Last Emperor is no exception. There?s a certain ham-handedness to this approach; history is laid out in broad, didactic strokes that force-feed the audience with names, dates, and events. While plenty of drama ensues as power changes hands, wars erupt, and lovers quarrel (John Lone, Peter O?Toole, and a host of supporting actors impress), this ravishing new DVD transfer makes it clear that Bertolucci?s heart lies in the pictorial qualities that the narrative offers. Taking full advantage of his access to the Forbidden City (the first time any Western director was allowed to enter), Bertolucci and his celebrated cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, fill the screen with lavish imagery that ultimately takes precedence over the historical imperatives. If you come away with lingering visions of imperial finery rather than the tenets of basic Maoism, you are forgiven. -

Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend

With the terms "great" and "legend" neatly tucked into the subtitle, it's no surprise that Elizabeth Wilson's biography of Mstislav Rostropovich is a worshipful portrait. Chalk it up to a student's devotion to her former mentor, perhaps, although many readers will feel that the tone is a good fit for Rostropovich, one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. "An overwhelming life force in the form of a cellist" is how one leading critic summed up Slava, as he was familiarly known, upon his death at 80 last April. Wilson studied with Rostropovich in the '60s at the Moscow Conservatory, where Rostropovich taught until 1974, and there is eye-glazing detail on those core years, particularly on the period spent at the conservatory coaching the cellists of "Class 19." The book quickly peters out after that date, though, following Rostropovich's reluctant emigration to the West. The events of his later life -- his famous impromptu performance before the Berlin Wall in 1989, his 17-year stint as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington, D.C. -- earn only a few sentences in the epilogue. Still, on Rostropovich's Soviet years, Wilson delivers amply, culminating in the cellist's defiant public support for the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a stance that had disastrous consequences for Rostropovich. If Wilson treads lightly on broader themes (like Rostropovich's commitment to artistic liberty), she finds her stride in well-sourced, lucid discussion of the cellist's brilliance as a teacher, his fruitful interactions with composers, and the musical values he held dear -- values that, thankfully, can still be heard on his many splendid recordings. -

One Body

Margaret Gibson's ninth book of poems, One Body, illuminates grief and celebration in equal measure. It begins with the death of a friend -- or rather with the first shaken aftermath of that death. Standing in the friend's kitchen, the poet sees:

?blue mats, yellow plates and cups,
a single jonquil in the bud vase
on the lazy Susan, and a hand--
Jeans's hand-reaching
to turn nearer
the small blue and white pitcher?

Gibson's poems resemble D�rer prints or Rembrandt paintings in their dedication to homely life. One sprig of basil fed to a dying woman conjures "goat cheese and a crust / of bread, the dust / of ruins and wild thyme. / ? her dead husband's / living mouth." Death haunts One Body -- the poems grieve the death of friend, father, sister; a mother's aging; "snipe and wolf / snow goose, dolphin, quail and lark." But Gibson expresses an equally devout, passionate affection for living: "Tonight, though I would like to ease / The length of my body along the length / Of my husband's and enter, breath / By breath, the heat two bodies make." Lines break with deliberation. The poem's rhythms are like rowing, purposeful and steady, and the poet's vision is prayerfully attentive. At every opportunity Gibson pushes at boundaries of subject and form. The result is a book of exquisite sadness and hopeful beauty. "I have always been alone, and I have never been alone. / What I used to call the self is a winnowing of light / in the flood plain of the boundless." -

Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance

Those drawn to antique shops and yard sales will delight in this inviting collection. In brief essays with accompanying photographs, 75 contributors consider their intense feelings for one beloved object. By excluding family heirlooms and childhood toys, the editors ended up with a less obvious and more eccentric assemblage of stuff, everything from a Zippo lighter to a turtle tail to an empty glass jar. Co-editor Carol Hayes ruminates on a needlepoint sampler sewn by her aunt, which consists of the word "thoughts" surrounded by flowers; the mystery of the object "plunges into philosophical confusion" every time she looks at it. Rick Rawlins writes of being a lonely kid who couldn?t attend an almost-friend?s birthday party because his family was moving that day. He stopped by the party to say goodbye and was given a yellow sugar egg, which he?s kept for decades as a symbol of "the hope and promise of friendship." His is one of many instances in which the photograph amplifies the impact of the written words: the picture of that fragile, chipped piece of candy almost breaks your heart. Some contributors knew from the start why their chosen item held significance; some can?t quite explain their fierce attachment to the thing. Other objects started out meaningless but acquired importance over time, just by virtue of sticking around for so long. Whatever the case, the book is testament to Joshua Glenn?s statement in the introduction: "Just as we are collectors of things, things are collectors of meaning." -

Fred Stays with Me

This deceptively modest picture book, Fred Stays with Me, is on the surface a straightforward account of a girl and her divorced parents, who share custody. As our self-confident heroine strides across the cover, we are cued from the very beginning that this not your typical bibliotherapy title She is swinging her overnight satchel in one hand, with the fingertips of the other hand trailing behind, securely tucked under her dog's chin. Tricia Tusa's whimsical watercolors bathe this optimistic child in warm sepia tones that perfectly balance Coffelt's strong declarative sentences. "Sometimes I live with my mom. Sometimes I live with my dad. But Fred stays with me," says our protagonist. Tusa has created an old-fashioned world with a timeless style of overalls and petticoats, of farmhouse kitchens and tree-hung swings. Fred, a round-bottomed, expressive canine of indeterminate parentage, misbehaves at both of her homes. At her dad's house, Fred steals his socks. At her mom's, he barks uncontrollably at the poodle next door. Both parents are exasperated. These moments of drama contrast with the companions' time together. The very next scene is a pastoral double-page spread in which we observe the little girl and her dog from behind as they perch on a boulder. She states, "Fred is my friend. We walk together. We talk together. When I am happy, Fred is too. And when I'm sad, Fred is there." As conflict with Fred escalates in both homes, Mom declares, "Fred can't stay with me!" Her father says, "Fred can't stay with me!" "Excuse me," says the little girl, "Fred doesn't stay with either of you. Fred stays with ME!" -

El Cid

Ostensibly, El Cid is the cinematic tale of the legendary 11th-century warrior who repelled the Moorish invasion of Spain. Viewed in its glorious, first ever DVD presentation, this 1961 epic now seems mostly to be about how to capture mountain vistas, open plains, sprawling armies, and, not incidentally, Sophia Loren?s eyes, in widescreen Super Technirama and glorious color. If the clotted plot, and the customary stiffness of Charlton Heston?s performance, has tarnished this onetime box-office smash, the current format gives us a chance to admire the craftsmanship of a dedicated Hollywood professional, director Anthony Mann, as he indulges his keen eye for visual splendor. The pleasure Mann obviously derived from collaborating with a major cinematographer (Robert Krasker, the man who lensed The Third Man), a gifted production, set, and costume designer (Veniero Colasanti), and, above all, a producer with open pockets (Samuel Bronston), is palpable. Mann?s work in the film noir (Raw Deal) and western (The Man from Laramie) genres may have been where his true genius lay, but the historical epic offered him the chance to paint on a broad canvas, capturing sweeping landscapes, manipulating hundreds of extras, and investing every scene, be it on a Spanish plateau or a lavish interior set, with emotionally expressive color. In the light of today?s political upheavals, El Cid --which promotes social unity as a way to ward off Islamic invasion -- can be read as a strangely prescient work. But why dig that deep when you can devote attention to how gorgeous both Spain and Loren look. -

The DC Comics Action Figure Archive

Although newspaper comic strips and animated cartoons and comic books have inspired tangible tchotchkes ever since the Yellow Kid first showed up, it was only in 1964, with Hasbro's introduction of the G.I. Joe doll, that the modern-day "action figure" was born. Molded from plastic with "articulated" joints, featuring a variety of accessories, the action figure has become the infinitely variable template for the depiction of any number or real and imaginary characters. In Scott Beatty's The DC Comics Action Figure Archive, we are treated to a colorful panorama of the DC plastic pantheon, an inclusive, collector-friendly listing of all the action figures authorized to date by this publisher. Beatty offers catchy sidebars that discuss mostly matters of rarity. He provides one-sentence biographies for many of the more esoteric figures, although the non-fan will remain baffled by the hermetic and recondite nature of the characters. Of course, the Big Three depicted on the cover -- Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman -- are household names and account for 40 pages between them. But it's not always the most famous hero who receives the best design. For instance, minor heroine Mademoiselle Marie, with her fashionable WWII partisan outfit, is just gorgeous. My one complaint about this feast of eye candy: alphabetizing characters by first name, such as placing Jimmy Olsen in the "J" section. Perry White would be scandalized! -

Vampire Weekend

The history of indie music in this decade has been all about borrowing. So it seems inevitable that some young band would hit on the idea of borrowing an album's worth of Afro-Pop from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, and the Talking Heads, who, back in the '80s, borrowed that sound from actual African musicians. Vampire Weekend are not the first to have this particular brainwave -- for one example, see the ridiculously catchy "Rough Gem" from Islands' "Return to the Sea" -- but they do a bang-up job, enough to get them a fantastic amount of attention for a debut record. Perhaps a little too much attention. The backlash against the band much beloved by critics started this fall, before they'd even released an album. All of the members are recent Columbia grads, and they deliberately mash-up descriptions of unapologetically preppy undergraduate life with Afro-centric rhythms, going so far as to call one song "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" (which manages to rhyme reggaeton, Benetton, and Louis Vuitton) and embracing the label "Upper West Side Soweto." They manage to work in references to a closet full of fabrics, including cufflinks, pinstripes, pure Egyptian cotton, "bleeding madras," and a keffiyah (which in a truly inspired lyric is stained with kefir). And "Oxford Comma" must be one of the very few pop songs dedicated to a punctuation mark (their keyboardist once worked as an intern at the OED). Nevermind. That song is one of many -- "A-Punk" and "Cape Cod" among them -- that feels like an instant pop hit. When a band has come up with a full album's worth of smart, literate, incredibly addictive pop on the first try, they've earned the right to be smug (not that we're suggesting they are or anything). -

Behind My Eyes

Those familiar with the work of Li-Young Lee will recognize his cultural and spiritual obsessions as well as the cast of mortal characters in his fourth collection of poems. Lee, the son of Chinese parents who immigrated to Indonesia, where his father was tortured because of his belief in Christianity, then relocated to Chicago, once again addresses aspects of the immigrant experience with poignancy and bite. In his work, childhood is a place populated with fear and soldiers; in poems like "Self-Help for Fellow Refugees," he addresses those whose "left side of the face doesn't match the right." Like Billy Collins, Lee is a master of using everyday objects -- in this case, doors, birds, apples, lakes, trains, and books recur frequently -- to dive from the surface of daily life into the deepest realms of the spirit. In this collection, he is particularly concerned with mortality, family, and the frustration of translating particular emotions and experiences into language that anyone can understand. In a poem to a lover, he writes, "You were happy with two rooms, and a door to divide them" while several pages later, he says of himself, "My favorite door opens two ways: receiving and receiving." But he's self aware enough to find the humor in his constant quest for a working theory of the universe. In "Virtues of a Boring Husband," he goes on an extended riff about the ladder that connects love with the divine, sure in the knowledge that the exercise is a surprisingly effective tool in putting his wife to sleep. In "To Hold," he concludes, "So we're dust. In the meantime, my wife and I make the bed." For those who remember his wife, Donna, as the young lover in his first collection of poems, "Rose," published in 1986, it provides a certain amount of reassurance, whatever end of Lee's metaphorical train one might be on. As he puts it: "one of us witnessed what kept vanishing / while the other watched what continually emerged." -

The Art of Time in Memoir

Graywolf Press has made a wonderful Art Of series with these light and eminently readable books, all written by knowledgeable artist-practitioners who offer portable master classes on some aspect of their practice. Other fine books in the Art Of series include, for instance, poet and critic James Logenbach on The Art of the Poetic Line and novelist Amy Bloom on The Art of Endings. Now noted essayist and memoirist Sven Birkerts muses about how the art of memoir makes use of the dimensions of time, reading writers as varied as Andre Aciman, Virginia Woolf, Jamaica Kincaid, Gabriel Garc¡a M rquez, and Mary Karr. If Birkerts has a thesis, it?s that memory is an ?irrational, even counterintuitive ecologist? and that memoir is the art of bringing back something that surprises and upends the ?authorized versions? we have of our own lives. Birkerts is especially concerned with the problem of retrospection, and the question of how to compress the ?then? and the ?seen again? into the same space. How does a memoirist?s act of re-regarding change the thing that?s being seen? Are there aspects of experience that can only emerge through the act of looking again? How does the self that recounts interact with the self that has experienced, or the self being recounted? These are questions that are far too tricky to have one answer, and Birkerts doesn?t try to give one. Instead, he explores how varied strategies yield varied results. Throughout, his genial intelligence makes him a valuable companion for students of writing and readers of essays more generally. He?s a master of seeing how storytellers of their own life fuse their outer lives to their inner ones, and how through sometimes radically unexpected fusings, arrive at the act of finding meaning. -

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).

Watching Them Be

What makes a film actor into a larger-than-life movie star? James Harvey's passionate, freewheeling essays explain why there are some faces (from Greta Garbo's to Samuel L. Jackson's) from which we cannot look away.


What if you called up the spouse on the verge of leaving you -- and instead found yourself magically talking to his younger self, the one you first fell for?  Rainbow Rowell, author of the YA smash Eleanor & Park, delivers a sly, enchanting take on 21st-century love.