Saturday, December 31, 2005

Sentence of the Day, 12/31

Panic, like some higher forms of grief and joy, is such an exquisite emotion that nature denies its casual recollection to all except psychotics, a few artists, and an occasional, pre-existential hero like Yossarian, the mad bombardier of Joseph Heller's World War II novel, Catch-22.

Vincent Camby
New York Times review of Mike Nichols's film adaptation of the novel, 1970

Probably the best and funniest indictment of war ever written (I was going to say "since Lysisstrata," but Aristophanes isn't really all that funny or indicting), the wild, shattering Catch-22 is, of course, unadaptable. Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry and the convincingly anguished Alan Arkin as Yossarian do a better job than I would have guessed possible, but, as Camby wrote 35 years ago, it's hard to imagine that anyone who hasn't read the novel would really understand what the hell is going on.

Seven Days in May

President Jordan Lyman (Frederick March): You got something against the English language, Colonel?
Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas): No, sir.
Lyman: Then speak it plainly, if you will.
Casey: I'm suggesting, Mr. President, there's a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.

I woke up this morning, a Saturday, to snow flurries, which made it easy to decide not to go out and run. Flipping around on my new gazillion-channel TV, I stumbled onto John Frankenheimer's excellent 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May, which I hadn't seen, just beginning on a channel called @MAX. To get HBO and Showtime on demand from Time Warner, you've got to get channels with names like "@MAX." According to the Cinemax website, "Cutting-edge and connected viewers will find that @MAX has what it takes to keep them interested. @MAX offers contemporary movies, movies with attitude and movies with new ideas for entertainment." Fill in your own mockery of the marketing idiots at Cinemax.

What is so staggering about this movie is the strength of the arguments Frankenheimer and screenwriter Rod Serling (yes, that Rod Serling) give to the right-wing junta that threatens take over the government of the United States. Burt Lancaster brings the full weight of his almost supernatural charisma and moral righteousness to the power-mad Joint Chiefs Chairman General James Scott, who leads a coût d'état against the equally excellent Frederick March's pacifist President Jordan Lyman (whose physical resemblance here to Lyndon Johnson is eerie). Compare this with the weirdly sinister, wooden Bruce Willis in the similarly themed (and otherwise provocative and prescient) 1998 film The Seige, who comes off as a mere nut-job.

Ava Gardner, Lancaster's tragic, boozy, broken-hearted ex-mistress, is heart-breakingingly sexy/beautiful/talented/vulnerable. OK, not a news flash. Her best line in this movie, "I'll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare," is delivered to Kirk Douglas, who is in the process of manipulating her to get personally compromising information that could bring down Lancaster, his boss. (This is 1964, when an affair still meant something. Ultimately, March's President Jordan doesn't use the information, taking the high road instead.) Douglas is terrific as the career marine forced to choose between his loyalty to his superior officer and to democracy.

Another priceless line, delivered by the great Edmund O'Brien (as "a dipso senator from Georgia"): "I'm going to phone the White House. Tell you what, friend, when this is over you can take off your girdle and have yourself a real good cry. Say, uh, you got a dime to stop a revolution with?"

The movie also features an uncredited John Houseman as a flip-flopping admiral (It would nine years before Houseman's next movie role, in The Paper Chase, brought him fame as an actor to match his already legendary status as a theater producer) and a slimy cabinet secretary named Christopher Todd, which happens to be the name of one of my best friends and roommates from college. (The real Christopher Todd is decidedly unslimy -- a goofy, perpetually grinning, chess-and-basketball-playing special education teacher in rural South Carolina.)

This entry brought to you by too much time on

Friday, December 30, 2005

Sentence of the Day, 12/30

Worse still if you belong -- willingly or unwillingly -- to the number of those for whom working means really working, performing, whether deliberately or without premeditation, something necessary or at least not useless for others as well as for oneself; then the book you have brought with you to your place of employment like a kind of amulet or talisman exposes you to intermittent temptations, a few seconds at a time subtracted from the principal object of your attention, whether it is the perferations of electronic cards, the burners of a kitchen stove, the controls of a bulldozer, a patient streched out on the operating table with his guts exposed.

Italo Calvino (tr. William Weaver)
If on a winter's night a traveler, 1979

Calvino is one of those writers who, great as he is, has somehow managed to influence my writing for the worse. He pulls off things that a mortal such as myself has no business attempting. And yet I attempt them. Poorly. Get back in your corner, Bitsy.

Crimes and Nihilism

DC still hasn't seen Match Point,Woody Allen's supposed return to greatness, but the good reviews are poring in from everybody (with the notable exception of David Edelstein, whose departure from Slate marks a sad day for everyone who cares about sanity in criticism).

DC did, however, watch Crimes and Misdemeanors the other night for the first time in years, and while some of the performances (Angelica Houston, ALan Alda, Jerry Orbach, Allen) and dialogue are less than perfectly credible, it remains a powerful indictment of the idea that there is any essential goodness or order in the universe. Martin Landau's tortured Raskalnikoffian optometrist (along with his Boris Karloff in Ed Wood, the crowning acheivement in that talented actor's career) and Alda's soulless TV producer get the happy-ever-afters, while Allen's struggling filmaker spirals into misery, Sam Waterson's good and moral rabbi goes blind and the wise intellectual, Professor Levy, the one who speaks from reel after reel of documentary footage about human beings' capacity to find joy and love in a fundementally indifferent universe, commits suicide, leaving a note that says, simply, "I've gone out the window."

Good stuff.

Lizards on the sand grand

Edward Albee's Seascape opens with an old couple on a beach -- they've just had a picnic -- arguing affectionately about what to do with the rest of their lives for 40 minutes or so, until the giant talking lizards show up. The very attractive set in Mark Lamos's pleasant broadway revival (the grass on the dunes looks pleasantly like grass on dunes, the wispy clouds in the clear blue sky look pleasantly like wispy clouds in a clear blue sky), and the mostly engaging, deepish dialogue -- especially the section when Nancy tells Charlie about the long-ago week that she spent "rereading Proust" and contemplating divorce and the bit where George relives a treasured childhood memory of settling on the bottom of the sea and trying to blend in with the fish -- but after 40 minutes, we're getting antsy for a little action.

George Grizzard and Frances Sternhagen are consummate, much-beloved pros, and it isn't like they do a bad job, exacly. It's just that Grizzard's George is often too cute, too sentimental. He makes it work, but there's a little too much syrup. And as the plucky, matter-of-fact, irritatingly optimistic Nancy, Sternhagen just seems -- can I say this? -- old. One thinks, "Well, good for her." And good for her indeed. But less good for us. It is ungenerous of me to say so, but there you are.

Anyway, I was pretty glad to see the lizards.

Consensus in the critical round-up at (where everybody's a lot nicer to the old humans than I'm being) is that the marvelous Elizabeth Marvel and the rising hotshot Frederick Weller are "droll" as Sarah and Leslie, the giant talking lizards. (Two different critics, Howard Kissel of The New York Daily News and Elysa Gardner of USA Today, use that strange and inappropriate word, making DC raise his eyebrows and wonder who copied.) It's an oddly tone deaf word to choose. They are funny, yes, very funny even, especially Weller, who is often hillarious. But, once you get past the fact that the actors are adults dressed in elaborate green lizard suits, there is nothing whimsical about these characters, or the ways in which they are portrayed. The humor is secondary to the boldness and vitality they bring to these confused, yearning creatures. What is striking is their unappologetic, disconcerting earnestness. Weller's baffled, macho desperation and Marvel's childlike wonder and openness are what bring this production to life.

Ultimately, Albee's 1974 play is about evolution, both in the literal sense of organisms mutating over time into different organisms filling different ecological niches (the sense being scoffed at so fiercely these days by the knuckle-dragging yokels in the hinterlands), and in the more new agey sense of growing, learning, adapting during the course of an individual lifetime. Nancy's dissatisfaction with her life is juxtaposed with the lizards' need -- which they are affectingly ill-equipped to comprehend -- to come out of the ocean because they felt they "didn't fit in down there" anymore. The unknown beckoned, and they were drawn to it. They meet some yacking weirdos, who bully, cajole, confuse and upset them, and they conclude, understandably, that they want to go home. But they choose to stay anyway.

I can't tell you exactly why that decision matters, only that it very much does.

Appologies to Gertrude Stein for the title of this post.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sentence of the day, 12/29

The only immorality is not to do what one has to do when one has to do it.

Jean Anouilh
Becket, 1959

This is a bit more aphoristic than usual for a SOTD, but DC is making an exception in honor of Thomas à Becket, the character to whom Anouilh gives this famous line.

Today is the 836th anniversary of Becket's murder on the orders of his friend, King Henry II. The principle for which Becket was killed -- he refused to un-excommunicate (recummunicate?) a couple of priests who had sided with the king in his bid to establish state jurisdiction over the era's notoriously lax ecclesiastical courts -- has been deemed by history to be less important than his heroic willingness to die for it.

Movie trivia: Peter O'Toole plays Henry II both in the 1964 movie adaptation of Anouilh's play (Richard Burton is Becket) and again in the 1968 film of James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, in which Katherine Hepburn taunts him for Becket's murder.

Runner up:

Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot
Murder in the Cathedral (Another play about Becket's murder), 1935

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Best novels for getting inside the heads of artists

1) My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
An absolute masterpiece. The child-prodigy Asher Lev navigates between the Scylla of his troubled Hassidic homelife and the Charybdis of the harrowing, unmanageable gift that causes everyone around him so much pain. If this novel doesn't transform the way you look at paintings, then you are already one very advanced cat.

2) The Gift of Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
If this sequel isn't as good as its predecessor, it's only because that would be impossible. The adult Lev is again in crisis, uncertain about his place in his community, where both he and his work are largely despised, and in the world of art, where has lost his way. Spectral Picasso cameos and intruding memories of the dead add to the novel's haunted mood.

3) Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut
To the degree that I care about abstract art it's because of this novel, about one old man's liberation by accepting, in the final chapter of his life, who he really is -- which is sharply at odds with who he's spent his adulthood pretending to be. Vonnegut is a prophet who reveals deep truths about the 20th Century soul in deceptively folksy parables. Cameo by Jackson Pollock.

4) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
A stretch perhaps, but the intensity of the scenes depicting Kavalier's work on his graphic novel The Gollum is thrilling, as the tortured illustrator invents a new way of story-telling. Cameos by Stan Lee and Salvador Dali.

With appologies to Irving Stone, whose prose is not to DC's taste.

DC stands corrected

It has been pointed out that the reference to getting "your $10.75 worth" in DC's King Kong rant, is a little misleading, as DC did not, in fact, purchase his own ticket. Needless to say, it was the saucy young person who bought the ticket who pointed this out. In his defense, DC notes that he never said "my $10.75 worth."

Sentence of the Day, 12/28

It was the perfect song, sweet and fast, corny but mean, high-pitched but definitely masculine. Charlo's theme song and he didn't know it.

Roddy Doyle, 1996
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors

Roddy Doyle is one of DC's favorite living writers. No one, living or dead, writes music like he does. Technically, I mean "writes about music," because it's literature I'm talking about, not songs. But to say "writes about music" would not do justice to the scorching immediacy with which the man writes music.

People think they know The Committments because they've seen the Alan Parker movie, or because their roommate or their parents used to play the soundtrack a lot. But if you haven't read that slim, exuberant, joyful novel, go read it and be delighted. Then read A Star Called Henry -- a fabulist revisionist epic of 20th Century Irish history -- and be amazed.

Woody's back?

When an important (albeit popular) critic makes a bold pronouncement about an important (albeit popular) artist, you've got to pay attention. Or not.

Though most of us stopped making excuses for Woody Allen's increasingly feeble movies long ago, every one of them is gets called his "best in years" by somebody who, for whatever reason, needs to believe that Small Time Crooks or a Deconstructing Harry has something important to say. These people are usually fools or liars or just willfully deluded.

Then along comes A.O. Scott, the big film cheese at the New York Times, and one who has notably not been taken in by Allen's recent films. Scott calls Allen's Match Point the director's "most satisfying film in more than a decade." As Scott describes it, Match Point is kind of like Crimes and Misdemeanors as written by Theodore Dreiser, only better. That would indeed be something.

Scott's reviews of Allen's films over the last few years have become sadder and sadder, as he is forced to acknowledge the schlockmeister his former idol has become. So does that mean we should trust Scott more than others on the subject because he has proven his credibility? Probably. Even so, I have my doubts.

The review starts like this:

Because Woody Allen's early films are about as funny as any ever made, it is often assumed that his temperament is essentially comic, which leads to all manner of disappointment and misunderstanding. Now and then, Mr. Allen tries to clear up the confusion, insisting, sometimes elegantly and sometimes a little too baldly, that his view of the world is essentially nihilistic. He has announced, in movie after movie, an absolute lack of faith in any ordering moral principle in the universe - and still, people think he's joking.

This is clear, clever, insightful and satisfying to read, but it sounds more like a reexamination of a body of work than the opening lines of a rave. If this movie were really a true return to form from the maker of some of the best films in American history (Annie Hall and Manhattan, at least, have ot be on anybody's list), wouldn't you expect more excitement about this particular film, rather than a mini-essay (however clever) on what people misunderstand about Allen's other films? While Scott goes on to celebrate Allen's emergence from a "long creative malaise," he does so in such a dispassionate way that it feels like he's trying to convince himself.

There's obviously one way to find out. Wait for DC to see the movie. He'll tell you the truth.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Slate's Movie Club

Slate's annual movie club is must-read stuff for movie fans and dillitantes of all stripes. (A.O. Scott calls it "the high point of [his] working life.")

My favorite quote so far is from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader: "In the case of Munich, what obviously represents a large step for Spielberg doesn't necessarily mean a new form of understanding for anyone else."

Gay cowboys make Baby Jesus cry

The NYT says Christians are getting critical as an alternative to those silly protests that didn't work and just sold more tickets to over-rated movies like The Last Temptation of Christ that everybody only liked because Pat Robertson hated it.

New Christian right movie review sites weigh in with comments like: Brokeback Mountain is a well-made, well-acted film, that just happens to be "abhorrent."

Jets fans suck less than Giants fans

The results of DC's scientific study, "Whose Fans Suck More, Jets' or Giants'?" have been released, and they are overwhelming. Based on two trips this year to Giants Stadium (where both teams play), DC maintains that Giant fans are far more obnoxious than Jet fans.

Even though the Giants were trouncing the hapless -- not to mention homeless -- New Orleans Saints earlier this season, the fans in my area complained bitterly (and ignorantly) about every call, jeered at Saints fans and let fly a non-stop spew of illiterate vitriol from their frothing mouths. They were like the rampaging visogoths in those "What's in your wallet?" commercials, only less pleasant.

Maybe it's just because their team is so bad, but against the Patriots last night the Jets fans mostly just sat there and took their beating like philosophers.

Show DC a good loser, and he'll show you somebody he'd rather sit next to at a football game.

(DC, for the record, likes the Giants. On TV.)

"Lazy Sunday" more popular than the Beatles

SNL's Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia rap video is not only the funniest thing ever, it's apparently also the most popular thing ever.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Sentence of the day, 12/26

Time's march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy, however tiny it might be, is to ask that a link be broken in that web of iron, is to ask that it already be broken. No one deserves such a miracle.

Jorge Luis Borges (tr. Andrew Hurley)
A Prayer

Reason of the day not to write a memoir

About four years ago I went to a panel discussion event at the New Yorker Festival where four successful writers of successful memoirs sat on a stage and answered the pompous questions of Bill Buford, an insufferable twit who insisted on pronouncing the word "mem-wah." Dave Eggers was humble and mumbly, Frank McCourt was jovial and glib and Martin Amis, eyebrows raised and mouth squinched, was doing his best to put up with the whole undignified thing. Mary Karr, though, was extremely sensible. She said:

"People always tell me they really want to write their own memoir, but they can't really remember all those details. And I say, 'If you don't know what happened, why the hell would you want to write about it? Why the hell do you think you could?'"

DC Exposed

Seems whole days go by when DC doesn't read a book, see a movie or have a thought. Why read books when it's so much more fun to buy new books that you can also not read? Why see movies when you can spend the day in Hoboken playing Boggle, Password, charades and a confusng, made up game that's sort of a cross between the $20,000 Pyramid and Suzuki, a Japanese performance technique much admired by avant-garde theater priestess Anne Bogart. Since DC's going to the Jets-Patriots game tonight, Mary Karr's Cherry (purchased at the W. 79th St. Goodwill for exactly half what DC had just paid for a Gatorade in Central Park) will probably remain largely unread.

So here's a review of an already-forgotten film I wrote six months ago for a Chinese magazine:

The Interpreter clearly wants to be an important movie, and Sydney Pollock's high-minded thriller does traffic in important themes. One of the great tragedies of post-colonial Africa is that a generation of leaders lost its way, transforming from liberators into mass-murderers and tyrants. The Interpreter doubtless deserves some credit for saying so and for purporting to show us the face of contemporary, war-ravaged Africa. But what are we supposed to make of the fact that this face apparently belongs to Nicole Kidman?

The plot gets going when Kidman’s character, a United Nations interpreter, accidentally overhears what may be part of plot to assassinate the genocidal leader of the fictional African country of Matobo, where, as it happens, she was born. Sean Penn is the tragically flawed, nobly suffering Secret Service agent assigned to investigate.

Pollock gives his stars plenty of room to show off their considerable acting chops. While it might be refreshing to see Penn play someone not trying to hold it together after tragically losing a loved one (in this case, his wife), it is nevertheless something he is terrifically good at it. He looks much older and more battered here than he ever has – picture a squirrellier Robert Mitchum with an emotional range. Kidman’s idealistic and professional veneer cracks convincingly as her own tragic and unlikely history is revealed. Until the movie’s silly, over-reaching climax – the product, reportedly, of rewrites Kidman insisted on – she is just about perfect.

The film’s high-adrenaline, paranoia-soaked idiom is reminiscent of 1970’s political thrillers such as Pollack’s own Three Days of the Condor. Unfortunately, most of its politics – genocide is bad, Africa is complicated, etc. – feel like just one more overwrought back-story in a movie already full of them. The film’s only reference to AIDS, for example, comes near the end when a minor character is gratuitously revealed to have the disease; practically the only reference to economics is when someone calls two opposition political leaders “the socialist and the capitalist”– just in case we gotten it; and the only real reference to race relations is when Kidman reveals that she was dumped by her powerful lover when her whiteness became a political liability.

Pollack’s unabashed adoration of the UN, given the organization's current problems, may be the movie’s boldest position. Both its ideals – Kidman delivers a powerful speech advocating the supposedly African idea that forgiving one’s enemies is the only path to freedom from otherwise crippling grief – and its physical space are glorified. Every shot the organization’s grounds, from the building itself to its sculpture garden and blooming cherry trees to the Queensborough Bridge looming in the background, evoke a palpable reverence for the place.

While The Interpreter is an entertaining thriller with some grade-A acting and a conscience, with a little more attention to the continent whose tragedies the film cloaks itself in, it could have been something more. It could have been important.

Sentence of the day, 12/25

I would it were bedtime, Hal, and all well.

1 Henry IV

Pass the Chronic Whatcles

OK, yes, this may be the funniest thing ever. But can it really save rap music?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Get Cheney a Blog

McCarthy: They all wanted to be writers. Every maniac in the world that ever brought about the murder of people through war started out in an attic or a basement writing poetry. It stank. So they got even by becoming important heels. And it's still going on.
Krupp: Is it really, Joe?
Joe: Look at today's paper.
McCarthy: Right now on Telegraph Hill is some punk who is trying to be Shakespeare. Ten years from now he'll be a senator. Or a communist.
Krupp: Somebody ought to do something about it.
McCarthy: The thing to do is have more magazines. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Print everything they write, so they'll believe they're immortal. That way keep them from going haywire.
Krupp: Mac, you ought to be a writer yourself.
McCarthy: I hate the tribe. They're mischief-makers. Right?
Joe: Everything's right. Right and wrong.
Krupp: Then why do you read?
McCarthy: It's relaxing. It's soothing. (Pause.) The lousiest people born into the world are writers. Language is all right. It's the people who use language that are lousy.

William Saroyan
The Time of Your Life, 1939

Sentence of the Day, 12/24

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Raymond Chandler
Farewell My Lovely, 1940

Friday, December 23, 2005

All in the Timing

The LA Times has just declared that mass culture is dead. Friedrich Nietzsche could not be reached for comment.

More Fun with Ian and Jane

I don't feel like I really finished my rant about Ian McEwan and Jane Austen and the marketing dweebs who love them.

What I'm saying is that the bozos at Doubleday who slapped a blurb calling IM the new JA on the back of Saturday, IM's most recent book, did so not because they thought that the fool at Esquire who wrote the blurb was making a valid literary point, but because they thought it would help the book sell better. (Doubleday hardly had to scrounge to find good reviews... Saturday was on a lot of critics' best books of year lists.) And I'm also saying that it's a sad commentary on the state of the critical faculties of the American book-buying public (I can't imagine they'd try to pass this over on the Brits) that comparing a well-known, contemporary, demonstrably un-Austen-like writer's rather Virginia Woolf-like novel to Jane Austen just because the latter's popular stock is soaring right now -- she's the Google of dead white females -- actually works, and that cynical marketing trumps reason and taste even on Reason & Taste's purported home turf: literary literature.

The blue shorts are bleached by patches of sweat that won’t wash out. Over a gray T-shirt, he puts on an old cashmere jumper with moth holes across the chest. Over the shorts, tracksuit pants, fastened with old cord at the waist. The white socks of prickly stretch towelling with yellow and pink bands at the top have something of the nursery about them. Unboxing them releases a homely aroma of the laundry. The squash shoes have a sharp smell, blending the synthetic with the animal, that reminds him of the court, the clean white walls and red lines, the unarguable rules of gladiatorial combat, and the score. It’s pointless pretending not to care about the score.

And then:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It's like selling apples by saying that they're like oranges, or salt by saying it's like sugar. There are indeed ways that apples are like oranges and salt is like sugar, but none of those ways are particularly interesting, specific or insightful.

Actually it's worse than that, because it's more cynical. (No one's going to be more likely to buy apples because somebody says they're like oranges.) It's more like somebody selling apples by saying they're like magic, golden candy apples.

But that's not right either, because magic golden candy apples are, obviously, better than regular old bruised and wormy apples. So it isn't actually as bad as that, because Ian McEwan is nobody's wormy apple.

So I guess I don't know what it's like, really. But it pisses me off.

Who needs to jump with a stroke like that?

Disclaimer: This blog is not normally about sports. It's also -- I hope -- not normally quite so sanctimonious. But here we are...

The two most unstoppable offensive forces in major college basketball are both white American guys.

[I have done no research, by the way; I have no actual facts (Hey, this is the internet, baby!); so for the purposes of this entry I'm going to go ahead and go with the evidence of my eyes that most of the players -- and more than most of the really dominant ones -- in NCAA men's basketball are black. I don't why.]

ESPN basketball writer Andy Katz does a big compare-and-contrast piece on Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison in the which the word "race" appears twice: "the player of the year race" and "the race for the national title."

The guiding principle behind this ommission seems to be that race doesn't matter, that both writer and readers are above noticing such things. Is it just me, or does this seem a little disingenuous? I mean, I respect and admire the impulse behind such a principle, but it just feels so phony.

Especially when you consider that a) the schools these guys play for are Duke and Gonzaga, academically elite private universities well known for having more than their statistically fair share of white players, b) the NBA is now full of black teen-agers and white Europeans (and other non-North Americans) who never played at US colleges, presumably diluting the level of competition significantly from what it might otherwise be, c) the difference between traditional notions of "white" and "black" styles of basketball is -- rightly or wrongly -- the dominant paradigm through which most discussion of basketball style takes place (See: White Men Can't Jump, Hoosiers, Fastbreak, The White Shadow, the upcoming Glory Road, et. al.) and d) the article goes on and on making superficial comparisons between these guys and their games (Morrison looks like a porn star and has a well-rounded game; Riddick looks like a jarhead and is learning to move better without the ball) to that point that lack of acknowledgement of their race feels incredibly strained.

The fact that these points of mine don't add up to anything, but rather head of in different directions, helps make my bigger point. Which is that there are a lot of possibilities that got ignored here.

Anyway, at the risk of wandering completely out of my depth...: While there is increasing DNA evidence showing that race is largely a social construct -- that, as a biological phenomenon, it might not actually exist -- it is indisputably a cultural reality. So, it's an issue. Why pretend it's not? Or else it isn't. In which case, why strain so hard to avoid mentioning it?

Sentence of the Day, 12/23

It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing.

Earnest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises, 1957

DC assumes you've read The Sun Also Rises. If you haven't, he urges you to get off the damn Internet and go read it. He knows you probably won't. He's OK with this. It's your life.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"Stand-up Existentialism"

Thom Pain (based on nothing) is the odd name of an odd (and brilliant) play by Will Eno, an odd (and brilliant) cat whom I know slightly. When the play opened in February, critics, even went berserk. Charles Isherwood (no pushover) wrote in the New York Times, "It's one of those treasured nights in the theater -- treasured nights anywhere, for that matter -- that can leave you both breathless with exhilaration and, depending on your sensitivity to meditations on the bleak and beautiful mysteries of human experience, in a puddle of tears," and said that Eno is the "Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation," a sobriquet I wouldn't mind having on my tombstone.

When I read the play this summer I thought the same thing. "Damn," I said to myself. "My good friend Will..." (If you know a guy slightly, and you suddenly discover that he's written a god damned masterpiece, you'll call him your "good friend" too. Unfortunately, when I ran into Mr. Eno on the street a couple months ago, he had no idea who I was. Well. Just wait til I write my masterpiece, Will Eno. Then you'll be sorry. Then you'll all be sorry!) Anyway: "My good friend Will has written a god damned masterpiece," says I to myself. "I can't wait to move back to New York and run into him on the street; he'll be so happy to see me!"

I finally went to see the play last night (I was in China in February), thinking I was in for one of those nights, you know, like Isherwood said I was in for. I consider myself more than averagely sensitive to "meditations on the bleak and beautiful mysteries of human experience," and I was eager to be gob-smacked by the awesome existential anguish of the thing.

Alas. Although I think the play itself is just as brilliant as I thought it was back when I still thought Will Eno liked me, this production, directed by an actual friend of mine, doesn't come close to realizing the beauty or the pain inherent in the writing.

"Before going farther it's only fair to include the evening's director, Hal Brooks, among the triumphant; his work, too, is witty, sensitive and close to perfection," writes Isherwood. I couldn't disagree more.

Hal directed me once, way back in grad school, in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. (I had a small role, but I was dedicated. I shaved my head and took off my pants and took up huge amounts of valuable rehearsal time arguing about trivial things.) Hal's career has taken off, and I couldn't be happier for him. He's a smart, talented guy. And it's only fair to acknowledge, as perhaps I should have earlier, that the actor I saw play the role -- Thom Pain is a one-man show, a monologue, a guy on a stage talking to an audience -- had replace James Urbaniak, the actor who created the role and who Isherwood and the other critics saw. So this whole post is kind of unfair.

But listen: I wish I wish I wish, O God, I wish I could write like Will Eno. And I never, ever will be able to. And, whoever you are, I'm pretty sure that neither will you. But in a play like this, in a role like this, with a director who was focused on the right things -- bringing out the truth of the character's world -- I could act circles around that nameless guy. And, whoever you are, you probably could to.

Because he wasn't, most of the time anyway, really there. He had some moments, sure. With writing this smart and raw, you have to. But his primary relationship wasn't with us -- it was with his "character." And the whole point of the play is that someone -- a damaged someone, a someone with "not enough skin." -- is trying (in both senses of the word) to make a real connection. And also to avoid it, too, because a real connection would be too painful.

But this dude really wasn't on that edge, and I have to lay that, at least partially, on the director. (I don't know how much time Hal got to work with this guy, who, again, was a replacement, so this criticism is, again, largely unfair. But so is life, baby.) I kept imagining what the play would be like with a charismatic, odd, emotionally available, quirky regular guy who fell through a wormhole into a Lenny Bruce routine written by Albert Camus. Mark Ruffalo or somebody. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But that production only exists in my head. Or yours, if you go read the play.

"It's sad, isn't it? The dead horse of a life we beat, all the wilder, all the harder the deader it gets. On the other hand, there are some nice shops in the area."

Will Eno
Thom Pain (based on nothing), 2005

Sentence of the Day, 12/22

The War on Christmas is a little like Santa Claus, in that it (a) comes to us from the sky, beamed down by the satellites of cable news, and (b) does not, in the boringly empirical sense, exist.

Hendrick Hertzberg
The New Yorker, this week

Dog Sees London, Dog Sees France...

Rumor has it that the scathing reviews of Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead -- that smart, funny play about the Peanuts gang gone wild -- have not hurt the show's ticket sales one little biscuit.

After all, what are a couple of bad reviews set against Eliza Dushku’s shaved vagina?

Seems Ms. Dushku, whose DSG character is based on long-time Charlie Brown nemesis Lucy Van Pelt (because life is so much better than anything you could ever make up!), wore a very un-Charles-Shultz-approved dress to the show's opening party.

(Please insert your own "Buffy," "Bring It On" and "Opening Party" jokes here.)

Oi! Oi! Oi!

DC now has readers in Melbourne, Australia. One reader, really, but he's extremely tall, so we're counting him as two. Our tall reader is currently writing a novel based on a year he spent expatting in China, where he and DC had various nefarious adventures. DC is hoping to make an appearance as a thinly disguised character in the novel, because he thinks that would be so cool! He hopes his character is a little like Bill, the American writer who goes fishing and carousing with Jake in The Sun Also Rises, all the while blathering cleverly on about pity and irony. (DC is already, actually, a thinly disguised character in at least one other unpublished novel set in China. This one is written in Spanish, and each of its characters is based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins. [DC leaves it to the reader's imagination to guess which sin he is.])

Anyway, everything that in happens Melbourne (a city in whose airport DC has eaten a slice of pizza, but of which he is otherwise almost wholly ignorant) is within the bounds of this blog, because the city is home to the dedicated and inspiring theater director Kate Cherry, DC's favorite director from his previous incarnation as an actor. By showing him a glimpse of the artistic and personally fulfilling heights to which the experience of acting can ascend, Ms. Cherry set our hero up for the Icarus-like plunge into the watery depths of crushing disappointment of everything that was to follow. (He refers here only to the crushing disappointment of the rest of his professional acting career. All other crushing disappoints he accepts, Jimmy Buffet-like, as his own damn fault.)

Stylistic Nonsense Alert: In this post, DC introduces the second person plural to refer to himself. I mean, ourselves. Then he goes back to third person singular. He can't explain this or justify it, and we're not gonna try.

Bill O'Reilly is Such an Asshole

I've never been a big Christmas guy. The overwroughtness of the thing has always made me uneasy, and, since I haven't considered myself a Christian since I was about 12, the religiosity of it means nothing to me. I would cheerfully say "Merry Christmas" to anybody I thought wanted especially to hear it (wee goy bairnes, elderly southern relatives, elves, etc.), but "Happy Holidays" was my default setting for the minimally socially acceptable politeness that we're so often called upon to practice this time of year. As Jon Stewart said the other night, "New Year's is right there too. And it's a holiday. So that's more than one. In English, that means we use an 'S.' " He said it in a silly voice with his eyebrows raised, so it was a lot funnier. He could also have mentioned that the celebration of birth of Jesus, which no one but children and the Dover, PA school board actually believes was in December, was moved to it's current spot on the calendar in the 4th Century to ride the coattails of the much more popular pagan festival Saturnalia. (That's right -- Christmas was the 4th Century's Kwanzaa.)

So, anyway, fine. The orgy of shopping and tourists in Manhattan brings enough headaches without having to take a strong position on one of the Culture War's stupider fronts.

Then along comes Bill O'Reilly. I've tried, really I have, to watch that Idiot's Guide to Life as a Self-satisfied, Ignorant Jackass, but I can't do it again, not for free. I do not have the fortitude. Fortunately, the good people at Conde Nast have paid the indispensable Hendrick Hertzberg to do it for me. His report from the front lines:

"I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday!” he said the other day. And, “I’m going to use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that!” And, “There is no reason on this earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace, and love together!” And, “And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me!"
The man parodies himself.

The awesome (I mean that literally) Christopher Hitchens has this to say:

The Fox News campaign against Wal-Mart and other outlets — whose observance of the official feast-day is otherwise fanatical and punctilious to a degree, but a degree that falls short of unswerving orthodoxy — is one of the most sinister as well as one of the most laughable campaigns on record. If these dolts knew anything about the real Protestant tradition, they would know that it was exactly this paganism and corruption that led Oliver Cromwell — my own favorite Protestant fundamentalist — to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether.

Hitchens specifically takes issue with O'Reilly's buddy Joe Scarborough for inviting him (Hitch) onto his (Scarborough's) Fox show to talk about pagan symbolism in traditional Christmas decor, where he (Hitch again) "was greeted by a storm of abuse, as if I had broken into the studio instead of having been entreated to come by Scarborough's increasingly desperate staff."

O'Reilly has also been attacking people willy-nilly, including the aforementioned Mr. Stewart. Which is particularly odd, because Stewart has always been more or less on O'Reilly's side on this one. I heard Stewart's standup show a couple month's ago in Stamford, Connecticut (Long story, don't ask...), and he was very clear about his anti-pc position on this:

What's the deal with the one Jewish family in every small town protesting the town Christmas tree? Forcing them to put up a big menorah next to it? Listen: I'm Jewish. I know the story. "The oil burned for an extra couple of days! Hooray!" It's the birth of their savior. Can we not just give 'em this?

Hard to imagine Stewart, or any sensible person, saying this now, after O'Reilly and his cohorts have rallied the forces of jackassery to their loony extremism. Because, if we've learned anything from the disaster that is George W. Bush's little outreach project in Iraq, it's that willfully simplistic, hyped up, idiot rah rah breeds blowback. (I'm not, incidentally, taking the wing-nut Michael Moore position that extremism somehow arrived in Iraq along with US troops -- that would be disingenuous and, I believe, contemptible. I'm just saying...)

So count me part of O'Reilly's blowback. The "War on Christmas," remains a figment of his paranoid, puerile imagination. But if it were real, and Christmas meant drinking eggnog and singing and laughing merrily with people like him, I would totally sign up, and I would march (double time) over to a secure forward position on Sixth Avenue outside Fox News, and there I would crouch behind a big yellow Gotham Writers' Workshop catalogue bow and wait...

What, I wonder, is the position of torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney and Alberto Renfield Gonzales on sticking gravel in snowballs?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Readers! We Got Readers!

DC is pleased to announce that he has had two (2) confirmed visitors to his blog, only one of whom is his mother. The other is Sally, Friedes, a woman of impeccable taste he met years ago in a writing class. (I had put in a little self-deprecating joke here: "Yes, difficult is it is to believe, DC once took a writing class," but given that fully half of my readership was sitting there beside me and the other half wrote the check that paid for the class, I don't think the joke makes a lot of sense. ) Sally has her own blog, about actual things (specifically, parenting), called Burning Apron.

For those who don't get the reference (Hi, Mom!), Burning Angel is a group of sexually empowered -- and slightly scary, if you want to know the truth -- young female... um, I guess you'd call them "performance artists" -- in the Bay Area, where Sally lives and works as a radio talk show host dispensing her sassy wisdom to the Northern California child-rearing masses. (Sally, if this is reference you did not intend, well, oops. Your consolation is that no one else reads this blog.)

Emerging theme note: DC is nice to his friends. Moral: Be his friend!

Emerging stylistic confusion note: You may have noticed that I sometimes call myself "Dilettante Critic," or "DC" and write in the third person, and that sometimes I don't. Dilettante Critic has noticed this too, and he's as confused about it as you are. I'll speak with him.

Sentence of the Day: A Primer

It needn't be a sentence. It needn't be from today. What it must be is, reasonably short, delightfully pithy, surprisingly satisfying and of shimmering literary merit (as defined at the whim of DC alone).

The entry below, for example, is not a sentence, and it was written more than thirty years ago. I read it today, however, as I was walking through Central Park this morning on my four-mile slog to work, bundled up and beparkad like Kenny from Southpark. (Transit strike, you see.)

The book in question, Kyril Bonfiglioli's After You with the Pistol, is a wonderfully snobbish bit of misanthropy (and, of course, misogyny, as you'll soon see if you keep reading) about an amoral, drunken art dealer/criminal, written with brio and panache by a man who did his best to convince the world that he too was an amoral, drunken art dealer/criminal (and who very well may have been). It's like naughty P. G. Wodehouse dipped in Dashiell Hammett and sprinkled with malice. But also full of joy. You see that, don't you?

Sentence of the Day, 12/21

"Glib," I thought bitterly. "Glib, glib." I often bitterly think words like "glib, glib" after listening to things which women have said; I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

Kyril Bonfiglioli
After You with the Pistol, 1972

Dog Sees Hostility

My friend Bert Royal (officially Bert V. Royal, thank you very much...) has written a smart, funny, subversive, entertaining, touching play called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a teenage blockhead, an (extremely) unauthorized parody of the Peanuts gang, which finds C.B. and company in high school, pretty much angst-ridden, horney, hateful, drunk, violent, gay, generally fucked up wretches, with a whisper of tragic existential wistfulness -- that most of the city's professional critics, especially the evil Jason Zinoman at The New York Times, have gone and pooped all over.

This irks me, for these reasons:

1) I am of the honest and -- as far as I'm able to judge (which is probably not very far) -- disinterested opinion that the critics, especially the evil Jason Zinoman at The New York Times, are wrong to be so dismissive of this play, which, in spite of not being perfect, is, as I said, smart, funny and satisfying.

2) Bert V. Royal is, as I said, a friend of mine, and these reviews to his play are not likely to make him happy.

3) Another friend is an investor in the show. The reviews are likely to make him nearly as unhappy as they make Bert.

4) Still another friend is the play's associate producer. (This friend happens to be a beautiful woman with whom I once had an epic, recrimination-filled love affair that ended rather wretchedly for all concerned. We're friends now. Even so, only I should be allowed to make her unhappy.)

5) Here I now am, winging half-considered libels into the ether about people who are all demonstrably more talented (except for maybe Demi), dedicated (except for that jackass at Esquire) and accomplished than I am, simply because it's gratifying. Should I, who, having once been an actor, know how hurtful it can be to read some know-nothing wanker bang on about my work, who knows that even reviews that are ostensibly positive reviews are often excruciating, permit myself this hypocrisy of near Cheneyan proportions? Should I not sit my conscience down and give it a talking-to about responsibility and doing on others and whatnot?

To quote the immortal John Belushi, "Naaaahh!" Dilettante Critic doesn't need to show you no stinkin' conscience. I'm gonna hurt Larry David's feelings? Or Jack Black's? As if. I don't have that kind of power. I have, in fact, no power. The evil Jason Zinoman at the New York Times has piles.

Of power, I mean. I make no claims to knowledge about the condition of his excretory system.

Full Disclosure: The EJZ at the NYT is so-dubbed because he once failed to hire me as a theater reviewer for Time Out New York. Never mind that I had no experience, that Time Out New York wasn't necessarily looking for a theater reviewer and that I spelled his name wrong in the unsolicited letter I sent him some years back, very possibly to the wrong address. DC is not one to let go of a potentially satisfying, one-sided feud with those who are wholly unaware of his existence.

King Kong Phooey

Peter Jackson's new King Kong movie is so good in so many ways that's almost a shame I have to trash it.

But first, the good: The "love" story between Kong and the sexy blonde -- current iteration, Naomi Watts -- is believable, compelling and even touching. Watts is good, Kong is great. Anybody who saw the incredibly life-like computer-generated Gollum in Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (which, based on those movies' gross box office, is, roughly, everybody) won't be surprised that the pixilated primate is bursting with personality. The movie is three-hour adventure thrill ride that definitely gives you your $10.75 worth. Hell, the scene where, after rescuing the damsel from the extreme distress of being eaten by ravenous Skull Island T-Rexes, Kong sulks, feigning aloofness like spurned lover or a willful child (i.e. "I didn't want to play with you anyway, so there!") is worth $10.75 all by itself.

(Economic digression -- Why, in the US, do all movies at the same theater cost the same amount of money to see, regardless of what they cost to make and of what price they might command on the free market? Regardless, in other words, of their value? It's like charging the same price for every car on a given lot. In this, as in so much else, the Chinese, who charge more to see popular movies than they do to see duds, are far more capitalist than we are. [I'm not saying this is a good thing -- China would be a more pleasant place if it adopted some old-fashioned US socialism, such as free public education and a social safety net. This, though, is far beyond DC's meager bailiwick. If such things interest you, I suggest you find a Dilettante Economist of some sort.])

So, sure, it's got its good points. It's just that the problems are so problematical. Jack Black, a revelation in High Fidelity, an inspiration in Tenacious D, and a legit box office-delivering comedy superhero in School of Rock, practically ruins the movie all by himself with the kind of cringe-inducing performance that makes you fear for his career. It's a tedious, one-note performance with none of the impish anarchy you expect from the guy. He delivers the remake's famous closing line as though he were profoundly embarrassed to be there. (Back in the day, when I was a cocky young actor of dubious integrity [and with about a tenth of Black's natural talent], I was often embarrassed to be in the drek that paid my bills, and I no doubt occasionally allowed that to color my own work. All I can say in my defense is -- well... There's not really anything, is there? I have no defense. I should have done better. My bad.) Anyway, I haven't read any reviews of this movie -- which is kind of odd, because I enjoy reading reviews -- so I don't know what the real critics are saying. But if anybody glosses over the gifted Black's decision to phone this one in from far, far away, he's either not paying attention, kissing Jackson's ass or on the take from Universal. Or something.

An even bigger problem, though, is Jackson's relentlessness with those same special effects I was just praising. Which is so weird, since the studio (I've read) fought with him to make the movie shorter and cheaper, which he could so easily have done by leaving out a ten-minute brontasaurus stampede (I'm not kidding. OK, maybe it was five minutes.) of jaw-dropping irrelevance and stupidity. And what possible reason could he have for throwing in all those velociraptors -- a dinosaur that maybe thirteen people in the world had heard of before Jurassic Park --- other than to show that he could do them better than Spielberg? (Which, since the damn things at least had a point in Spielberg's bad dinosaur movie and they have none here, he totally fails to do.) There are so many of these high-octane showy scenes in a row that even the good ones lose the power they would otherwise have. At one point, when giant bugs threaten to eat Adrian Brody (which wound up being a great scene, by the way, even though Brody didn't get eaten), a guy sitting near me perfectly summed up the feelings of many in the audience when he said, "Oh, no, not again!"

Things that should be very good but that, for some stupid and obvious reason aren't, make me so much more upset than things that are just bad. Maybe I should work on that. But I probably won't.

He's irritating! Get it?

The most over-rated show on television (and possibly the most over-rated anything anywhere) is Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everybody just loves it. You probably do too. Even Michael Kinsley (Michael Kinsley!) took time out recently from his usual smart lefty opinion journalism to write a gobbledy-gook piece in Slate calling Larry David the new Jane Austen. (What the hell did poor Jane Austen do to deserve all this? See below.)

Here's the truth, and everyone who pretends otherwise (You've all got to be pretending, because no one could really believe what you're all saying) is wrong: Seinfeld was a much better show than Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Seinfeld was tight, while CYE is slack. Seinfeld was sharp, while CYE is flabby and self-indulgent. Seinfeld was smart, while CYE is, yes, dumb. Seinfeld was honed, polished and professional, while CYE's slapdash, pseudo-improvisational feel just looks amateurish (David is no Christopher Guest or Ricky Gervais --comedy verite geniuses).

Most importantly, Seinfeld was consistently funny, while Curb Your Enthusiasm is just irritating. Not funny-irritating, either, like Arrested Development or pre-Lost in Translation Bill Murray. I mean that the point of the show seems to be to produce irritation by showing an irritating guy get irritated by things that, while admittedly irritating, are consistently less irritating than he is.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fun with Ian and Jane

More on this later, but I gotta touch on it before I go to bed -- On the back of Ian McEwan's recent novel Saturday (universally praised an rightly so), some marketing goober from Doubleday (the Random House division that published the thing) put the following blurb:

"McEwan could be the most psychological astute writer working today, our era's Jane Austin."
-- Esquire

I've got no problem with the first clause; McEwan could be the most psychological astute writer working today. I'm not gonna argue that he isn't. I've only read two of his books (the obvious ones -- Saturday and Atonement), more than enough to know that he's about 45 thousand times more pychologically astute than writers who sell a lot more books and make a lot more money and are a lot more likely to read Esquire. He produces, in fact, page after page of startling, subtle, wonderful pychologically astute prose. He explains the incidents of daily life and thought in such fresh, simple, shockingly correct ways, that I have to stop reading every few pages just to go "wow." So: OK so far.

It's the straight-faced comparison with Jane Austen that makes me want to hit somebody.

Now, I haven't read the review, and maybe context makes this less stupid (though I don't see how it could). But even if it does, some jack-off name-dropper thought the book-reading public was stupid enough to swallow this.

Yes, Jane Austen, too, was pychologically astute. She was, too, from England, and, too, she wrote really excellent novels. How many other authors can you think of who fit that description? Dozens? Maybe hundreds? Well, pretty much whoever you come up with is likely to be more sililar to either Austen or McEwan than they are to each other. They are similar in almost no way.

Jane Austen was, first and foremost, a satirist. She was, second (and, um, secondmost, I guess), a miniaturist, focusing almost exclusively on the interactions of marriagable gentlemen and ladies in a artificial world with fixed rules and mores. McEwan, in his two most popular novels at least, is an expansive realist, more like George Elliot, or even, in the way his characters' consciencenesses roam freely around the entirety of their counceptual universes, taking in wars and terrorism and epochal change, Virginia Woolf. Sure, some of Austen's heroines learn lessons (others, somewhat surprisingly, don't), but they're the lessons the reader knows is coming. It's the heroine's delightful navigation of the social maze to the anticipated happy-ever-after-ness, told with sparkling wit and surprisingly cutting irony, that makes us love these books. McEwan's stories could not be more otherwise, and his 20th Century heros and heroines move with earnestness through much vaster, and more fundamentally uncertain, conceptual realities. The question is less, "Will I marry the yummy rich boy?" and more, "What have I done with my life?"

The point is: this is a widely well-reviewed major work by a gifted, major, writer, whose major publisher couldn't spend ten minutes finding a blurb for the back cover that doesn't make this member of literary book-buying public (not the biggest group going these days) want to vomit.

Sigh. Welcome to my world.

Demi not always awful?

I stayed up late last night watching A Few Good Men. Again. What struck me this time was that, if it was the only one of her movies you ever saw, you would have no idea how bad Demi Moore sucks.

Seriously; she's absolutely adorable in this movie, like she hasn't been since Blame It on Rio. (Remember? She was Michael Caine's teenage daughter, pouting because her father was sleeping with her best friend. She had no implants and almost no lines, and she was too unknown to be icky yet. I digress.)

Anyway, how can this be? Anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing Mrs. Kutcher actually try to act knows that she's just terrible (nearly as unbelievable as her ex-husband, Bruce Willis, who somehow gets a free pass from everybody).

Some of it has to be Aaron Sorkin's super-snappy dialogue, which I figure can hold up pretty much anybody. But it's more than that. She's playing this uptight, rigid, sexless lawyer, and it's easily her sexiest, most charming performance. The question is, is this actually talent? Or is it an illusion? I mean, any actor can look good in the right role, yes? (Even Willis was almost good in Pulp Fiction.)

When the woman tries to be sexy or heroic or -- God forbid -- serious, she's a disaster. But pin up that hair, button up those mighty, man-made boobies, make her act nerdy and vaguely incompetent and cast her opposite a guy with absolutely no interest in her [insert your own Tom Cruise joke here] and, well, damn. I totally wanted to kiss her.

Which, fair enough, is not necessarily the ultimate barometer of whether a performance is any good.