Stanley Fish’s 10 Best American Movies

OK, a ten-best list ought to be eccentric. After all, how many times do we need to be pointed at Casablanca or Kane? But…Groundhog Day?

The 10 Best American Movies

It’s Top Ten time again, and like everyone else I have a list, in my case a list of the 10 best American movies ever. Here it is, with brief descriptions and no justifications. Only the first two films are in order. The others are all tied for third.

Enter, pursued by a bear

James Surowiecki says uncharacteristically little in this NYer piece: Wall Street seems to like T-Sec-designate Timothy Geithner, and said Geithner is a not-so-bad choice.

Pretty clearly, the article was an excuse to use a great title, a Shakespearean stage direction paraphrased from The Winter’s Tale.


… Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoin’d to this. Farewell!
The day frowns more and more: thou’rt like to have
A lullaby too rough: I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamour!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase:
I am gone for ever.

Exit, pursued by a bear

Alas, poor Antigonus: pursued, caught and consumed.


Go you the next way with your findings. I’ll go see
if the bear be gone from the gentleman and how much
he hath eaten: they are never curst but when they
are hungry: if there be any of him left, I’ll bury

Will the bear eat Mr Geithner? Stay tuned.

Alas, poor Andre

Royal Shakespeare Company to stop using ‘distracting’ real skull in Hamlet

The use of the skull had been kept a carefully guarded secret throughout the play’s four month run in Stratford until leading man David Tennant disclosed that the skull belonged to the late pianist Andre Tchaikovsky — who bequeathed his skull to the RSC for this very purpose.

Andre Tchaikovsky left his skull to the RSC in 1982 after he died of cancer to be used on stage in Hamlet. It took a quarter of a century to happen — and he posthumously appeared as Yorick in the recent production of Hamlet at Stratford.

“He hated the way it was done. When he saw it with the RSC, he (Andre) said ‘I am going to leave my skull to the RSC, they really should have a proper skull. It doesn’t work with the plastic thing they have’. And then we looked at his will, and there it was.”

16C Pixel Garamond

pixel garamond
We have here, courtesy of Jonathan Hoefler, a sample of a pixel font from 1567.

The struggle to adequately render letterforms on a pixel grid is a familiar one, and an ancient one as well: this bitmap alphabet is from La Vera Perfettione del Disegno di varie sorte di ricami, an embroidery guide by Giovanni Ostaus published in 1567.

Claude Garamond

If I’m counting correctly, the letters are 17 pixels high, and up to 17 wide. Of course, in context, it’s not all that surprising; it makes sense to use a pixellated font for embroidery. The resemblance of the font to Garamond (to my unschooled eye, anyway) is also not all that surprising: Claude Garamond died in 1561.

via John Gruber

Brother, can you spare a dime?

NYC 1929

Rob Kapilow talks about the Harburg/Gorney 1932 classic on NPR. It sounds alarmingly up to date, adjusted for inflation.

The article has links to several renditions of the song, of which Harburg’s is my favorite (though Daniel Schorr’s version, at the end of the audio version, is quite fine). YouTube has a perfectly awful version by George Michael, and a rather interesting performance by Mandy Patinkin on the David Letterman set. The audience isn’t sure whether it’s not an extended joke, but Patinkin sells it pretty well.

Susan Stamberg has a blog post on the piece, where Roger Hurwitz adds in comments:

The interview, which Susan references, was with the late Studs Terkel and appears in his recently published P.S. (New Press, 2008). In it Harburg said about the song “it was trying to expound a social theory… that our whole system of capitalism and free enterprise is based a rather illogical and unscientific groundwork: that we each exploit each other, we each get as much out of the wealth of the world that our ruthlessness… gives us permission to enjoy. and most people who don’t have that kind of power are left penniless, even though they do most of the producing.”

Harburg went on to say that if Cole Porter had written the song, the singer would be the man asked for the dime and would have given a half-dollar.

Patricia Spaeth, commenting on the main article, rightly complains that Kapilow ignores the verse; let’s have the whole thing, shall we?

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime
lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

That old Lie


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 1917

John Taylor’s Chronophage

A diversion, but an appropriate one, maybe.
The BBC:

“Conventional clocks with hands are boring,” he said. “I wanted to make timekeeping interesting.

“I also wanted to depict that time is a destroyer – once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.

“That’s why my grasshopper is not a Disney character. He is a ferocious beast that over the seconds has his tongue lolling out, his jaws opening, then on the 59th second he gulps down time.”

The Chronophage in action:

via /.

Update: The Love of my Life, whose wish is my command, requests a picture of the grasshopper itself.


George Smiley coming to BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 will dramatize—sorry, will dramatise—John le Carré’s Smiley novels. Some of the BBC’s radio dramatizations have been excellent, some not so much, and I’m never quite sure whether it’s le Carré or Alec Guinness that I’m a fan of. Regardless, I hope to be able to give it a try.

[Mark Damazer, head of BBC Radio 4] announced that Radio 4 is to dramatise all eight of John le Carré’s Smiley novels.

The part of George Smiley, one of the most famous characters in spy fiction, was immortalised by Sir Alec Guinness in two BBC television adaptations.

No one has yet been chosen to play the role in the radio version, which will be broadcast next May, but Mr Damazer did not rule out the Shakespearean British actor Simon Russell Beale.

“I have always thought that the quality of Le Carré’s writing hasn’t been appreciated as much as it might,” he said. “He is a huge and considerable figure in late 20th and early 21’s century fiction. This will celebrate a great, great British writer who may not have won a Nobel but whose writing I think takes him way beyond genre fiction.”

via Jorn Barger

The Band’s Visit

The Band's Visit
The Band's Visit

I do most of my movie watching via Netflix, tossing random titles into my queue as I come across intriguing reviews or recommendations. Since my queue is longish, compared to my viewing rate, by the time a movie shows up in my mailbox, I’ve generally forgotten what it’s about and why I picked it.

Every so often, I come across a small movie that exceeds my expectations (such as they are), and I suppose that’s one of my favorite movie-watching (or play-going, for that matter; see my Bach at Leipzig post from a few days ago) experiences.

All of which is by way of recommending The Band’s Visit. Here’s the Netflix summary:

When an Egyptian police brass band travels to Israel to play at the opening of an Arab arts center, they wind up abandoned and lost in a remote desert town in this charming cross-cultural comedy. Defying expectations, the tiny Israeli community embraces the musicians, and both the Egyptians and the locals learn a few things about one another — and themselves — in this witty winner of the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard prize.

As I look at the movie’s Netflix page, I realize that my choice must have been driven by reviews. Here’s Roger Ebert:

They are in the middle of the Israeli desert, having taken the wrong bus to the wrong destination. Another bus will not come until tomorrow. “The Band’s Visit” begins with this premise, which could supply the makings of a comedy, and turns into a quiet, sympathetic film about the loneliness that surrounds us. Oh, and there is some comedy, after all.

Ebert suckers me into some lousy movies, but he’s right about this one. And here’s Ty Burr (Boston Globe):

The Israel of “The Band’s Visit” is one in which God has pushed the pause button. Set in a small, out-of-the-way desert town called Betah Tikva — a development that appears to have stopped developing from sheer inertia —Eran Kolirin’s debut film is about the comedy and tragedy of the things that separate people: borders, religions, languages, loneliness. It’s a small, profoundly satisfying movie that keeps echoing long after it’s over.

In a sort of cosmic joke, an Egyptian police band has arrived in Betah Tikva, its eight members uniformed in powder blue and utterly at sea. They’re supposed to be in Petah Tikva to play at the opening of a new Arab Cultural Center but they got on the wrong bus. There’s no cultural center in Betah Tikva. There’s no culture or center, either. There’s only an apartment high-rise, a cafe, a public phone, and locals who’ve long since given up trying. The appearance of Arabs bearing tubas and ouds is a welcome dash of the surreal.

Go watch it, and then come back and thank me.

Orwell’s Diaries

Starting today, George Orwell’s diaries start appearing as a blog, 70 years after they were written (you may recall a similar project some time back blogging the diaries of Samuel Pepys). By way of introduction:

From 9th August 2008, you will be able to gather your own impression of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries. The Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

What impression of Orwell will emerge? From his domestic diaries (which start on 9th August), it may be a largely unknown Orwell, whose great curiosity is focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid. From his political diaries (from 7th September), it may be the Orwell whose political observations and critical thinking have enthralled and inspired generations since his death in 1950. Whether writing about the Spanish Civil War or sloe gin, geraniums or Germany, Orwell’s perceptive eye and rebellion against the ‘gramophone mind’ he so despised are obvious.

Orwell wrote of what he saw in Dickens: ‘He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry— in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

Here’s the first entry, August 9, 1938.

Caught a large snake in the herbaceous border beside the drive. About 2’ 6” long, grey colour, black markings on belly but none on back except, on the neck, a mark resembling an arrow head (ñ) all down the back. Did not care to handle it too recklessly, so only picked it up by extreme tip of tail. Held thus it could nearly turn far enough to bite my hand, but not quite. Marx1 interested at first, but after smelling it was frightened & ran away. The people here normally kill all snakes. As usual, the tongue referred to as “fangs”2.

Notes by Peter Davison, from the Complete Works:

1The Orwells’ dog.

2It was an ancient belief that a poisonous snake injects its poison by means of a forked tongue and not, as is the case, through two fangs. So Shakespeare in Richard II, 3.20 – 22.

            Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder

            Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch

            Throw death upon thy sovereign’s enemies.
See also 11.8.38.

Via /.

Bach at Leipzig

Itamar Moses’ Bach at Leipzig is in repertory at Shakespeare Santa Cruz; I saw the matinee performance on Thursday.

The NYT’s Charles Isherwood was not impressed in 2005.

Sitting through Mr. Moses’ reverent attempt to mimic the brainy irreverence of Tom Stoppard is like being forced to consume glass after glass of flat Champagne, with no hope of giddy inebriation in the offing. Inundated with arcana about religious and musical squabbles in 18th-century Germany, besieged by sophomoric jokes, you leave stuffed and queasy but sadly sober.

Two years later, the WaPo’s Celia Wren liked it a little better.

In Moses’s historical riff, six musicians gathered in Germany are competing for a prestigious job: organist for the church known as the Thomaskirche, an audition that really occurred. As war brews between German states and highwaymen go on the rampage, the keyboardists — all named either Georg or Johann — devise byzantine schemes to top each other.

With its wordplay, brainy allusions, bold swipes at history and virtuoso manipulation of artistic forms, “Bach at Leipzig,” astutely directed by Kasi Campbell, has a “look-Ma-no-hands” swagger that seems aimed at out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard.

The entire first act, for instance, adopts the intricate structure of a fugue, a musical form at which Bach excelled. The movements and confrontations of the rival musicians suggest a pattern of contrapuntal voices, from the initial spat between free-thinking Johann Friedrich Fasch (Karl Kippola) and his sour conservative enemy, Georg Balthasar Schott (Bruce Nelson), down to the late arrival of the insecure celebrity Johann Christoph Graupner (David Marks).

Well, I liked it a lot more. This is not Art Manke’s first shot at directing this play, and his experience shows. The cast and acting are terrific; Larry Paulsen’s Schott is especially wonderful. Go see Bach at Leipzig; you won’t regret it. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan is our new Poet Laureate. Here’s her poem “The Niagara River”, from the eponymous collection.

As though
the river were
a floor, we position
our table and chairs
upon it, eat, and
have conversation.
As it moves along,
we notice—as
calmly as though
dining room paintings
were being replaced—
the changing scenes
along the shore. We
do know, we do
know this is the
Niagara River, but
it is hard to remember
what that means.

Listen to Ryan reading it.

The Wiper is as cruel as death

I go through the same preparations but now I tend to focus on the type of object that seems possible to construct. The Windshield Wiper for Grant Park is a more architectural shape, for example, than the Teddy Bear. This is also true of the Clothespin.

As an example of the genesis of one monument, would you describe how the Windshield Wiper evolved?

The Wiper was partly suggested by the tall tapering shape of the Hancock building. If you stand in Grant Park near the Buckingham Fountain where the Wiper is sited and look at the Hancock building, itʼs as if youʼre seeing one long rectangle in perspective, which is the effect the Wiper itself would have. Hereʼs an example of the coming together of choice of objects with a technology needed to realize it. Another source is: the Wiper defines the structure of Chicago because itʼs located on the Congress Expressway axis, which also happens to be the axis of Daniel Burnhamʼs symmetrical plan for the city. Look at a map of Chicago and youʼll see that the Wiper stands at the center: if you draw a compass line, it defines a semi-circular arc—the lake cuts off the circle.

CARROLL: But why a windshield wiper?

Chicago is a city of the meeting of water and land—a whole circle of the compass would be half water and half land. A windshield wiper occupies a place where water and “dry land” meet. In Chicago, one is always looking at the wet lake from a dry spot. And there is Burnhamʼs concept of a facade, a window. Then thereʼs the sepulchral feeling I get about Chicago, perhaps because itʼs so perpendicular—like tombstones. Chicago has a strange metaphysical elegance of death about it. I wanted a symbol of that: so the Grim Reaper became the Giant Wiper—a verbal play. The Wiper is as cruel as death because it comes down into the water where kids are playing. Much like the Bowling Balls careening along Park Avenue, the Wiper can kill kids if they donʼt learn how to get out of the way. Chicago seems to raise its children that way: everybodyʼs out to get rid of the other person in this terribly competitive city.

What would you say to the argument of some city booster whoʼd claim that a monument of a windshield wiper hardly captures Chicago as powerful, vital, masculine builder—”city of the broad shoulders,” as Sandburg wrote? Or if the booster said: “Are you suggesting that we wipe or clean up the city, huh?”

The objections would be a simple-minded explanation of what the Wiper is all about: my intentions are more poetic. For example, the Wiper also makes the sky tangible in that it treats the sky as if it were glass. Making the intangible tangible has always been one of my fascinations. But “wipe out” is slang for kill, isnʼt it? 

Via Public Address