Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Avatar

So I finally saw Avatar. I was aware of this movie's main message long before I first put on the 3D goggles. Primitive, tribal, arrow-shooting aliens - good, advanced technology-using humans - bad. This is quite ironic since the only interesting thing about this movie turned out to be the mind-bogglingly advanced technology that made its alien world come alive in 3D. The story itself is quite mediocre.

About the tech: the 3D was spectacular, though not without occasional problems. Sometimes characters appeared thinner than they should have been and sometimes things that should have been in focus were out of it. A lot of talented artists must have put a lot of effort into creating Pandora's fauna. The horse, the lion, the dog, the dragon of human mythology and many other creatures were reimagined in a fresh, exciting way.

Sadly, not so for the PC dogma saturating Avatar's script. Besides the tired old noble savage delusion the movie had a lot to say about the evils of civilized manhood. The genius scientist character is of course played by a woman who makes obligatory fun of civilized hero's (but never of the noble savages') intelligence. And this is from a guy who's known as a techie. The main character's betrayal of his own, which in this case means all of humanity, is served up as heroism. The same exact traits (a martial ethos, for example) are presented as unforgivably evil among civilized men and as ennobling among the savage aliens. There are plugs for global warming awareness, anti-capitalism (this from the creator of all the biggest blockbusters of his generation), and the modern anti-war movement. Even though I'm against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars myself, seeing Cameron's hyper-hypocritical ass come out as anti-war almost made me want to turn pro-war.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Conando Girl

I've been a fan of Conan O'Brien since his very early days on TV. I think he's as likable as Letterman, but funnier, and as funny as Jimmy Kimmel, but more likable. Anyway, the last few times I've seen his show, the funniest skit there featured him as Conando, the protagonist of a fake telenovela called "Noches de Pasion con Señor O'Brien". In every one of these skits Conan rescues the same Spanish maiden from the depredations of cartoonish lowlifes. The funniest part is usually the appearance of Andy Richter near the end, but that's not what this post is about.

More often than not these skits end with Conan pretending to kiss the girl he rescued. The girl is a stunner, probably the finest example of Mediterranean womanhood I've ever seen on TV. Here's a sample. Besides being that beautiful she happens to remind me of someone I used to know in flesh and blood...

Where was I? OK, I finally found that Conando girl on the web. Her name is Hannia Guillen, she was born in 1982 in Cuba and has resided in the US since the age of 10. She plays somebody in a real English language soap opera called Passions. If there was any justice in this world, she'd be starring in worldwide blockbusters now, while periodically giving birth to the kids of deserving billionaires to the sounds of fanfare and universal public celebrations. Instead I had to work with Google for a good 5 to 10 minutes to simply find out her name. Oh well...

Kurt and Courtney

Yesterday, while poking around YouTube, I stumbled upon "Kurt and Courtney", an old British documentary about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. I was 16 when Nevermind came out, so it made a pretty strong impression on me. I still own that little cassette and still remember most of its lyrics by heart.

This film did not change my opinion of Ms. Love one bit - I think she is a selfish, immoral, calculating psycho bitch. She had dreamed of becoming famous since childhood and must have seen Kurt purely as a vehicle. The bizarre thing is that I still kind of like her old music videos. Doll Parts, Violet and Celebrity Skin are all quite striking.

My opinion of Kurt did suffer as a result of seeing this movie, though not by very much. He was weak-willed enough to be controlled by her, and, of course, by drugs. At one point in the movie a very sweet British woman who tried to write a book about Kurt and Courtney while Kurt was still alive played a message he once recorded on her answering machine. This is what it says:

"This is Kurt Cobain. If anything comes out in this book that hurts my wife, I'll f-ing hurt you. I don't care if this is a recorded threat. I'm at the end of my ropes. You'll understand when you see me in person. Never been more serious in my life. I suppose I could throw out a few thousand dollars to have you snuffed, but maybe I'll try it the legal way first."

In spite of this Kurt comes out about a million times more sympathetic in this movie than does Courtney. She really is that awful. The filmamker interviewed a few people who asserted that she hired a hitman to kill Kurt because she was afraid that he'd divorce her. I was not convinced. All the evidence presented for that seemed shaky. However, if he was with even a slightly less evil person than Courtney at the time, perhaps he would have been less depressed and perhaps he wouldn't have killed himself.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Unfinished Novel

Years ago I tried writing a novel. At the time I had an office job in which I didn't have anything to do for long periods of time. My co-workers, all of whom were women, mostly used this free time to talk to each other. I would have liked to spend it reading books or surfing the Web, but unlike idle chatter, those things weren't really allowed by our bosses. I had to somehow look busy, so one day I opened an MS Word window and started typing the first scene of a novel. Who was going to say that I wasn't working?

Over the next few years I sporadically added new scenes, sometimes spending long periods without ever thinking about my book and at other times obsessing over its style and plot for months on end. It's unlikely I'll ever finish it (look at the name of this blog), but there's probably no harm in linking to it from here. So here it is.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review of Madame Bovary

Here's the first of my reviews of Great Books:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, 1856. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10. Read in French. Flaubert's rating in C. Murray's Human Accomplishment: 24 out of 100.

This novel both starts and ends with the story of Charles, the title character's husband. Emma, his wife, thinks that Charles is incredibly boring, which to her mostly means that he's lacking in ambition and masculinity. He is also not very smart, though he does have a lot of other enviable traits.

Charles is honest, hardworking, conscientious, uncomplaining and relatively good at his chosen profession (he's a country doctor). In Flaubert's time, just as in our day, for a physician to be good he had to consciously practice as little of his craft as he could get away with. We're told that Charles doesn't prescribe much to his patients besides laxatives and sleep aids, always fearing that he'd hurt them with anything more substantial. Flaubert was a son of the chief surgeon of the biggest hospital in Normandy, and he obviously knew the realities of the medical profession well. The only proactive medical decision described in the book - the unnecessary maiming of a stable boy named Hyppolite - is conceived and urged not by Charles, but by the pharmacist Homais, who is the novel's biggest villain.

If Charles is so great, why does Emma hate him so much? The answer is suggested by the nature of the men with whom she chooses to cuckold him. Emma's first lover Rodolphe is the most macho character in the novel, with the possible exception of the international opera star Lagardy whom she can only admire from afar and of a mysterious vicomte she once meets at a ball, and whom she can't have either. Rodolphe had had a lot of affairs and is never shy or insecure about anything. Unlike Charles, who truly loves her, Rodolphe can easily go in and out of the baroque, flowery language in which seducers usually talk in the cheap romance novels Emma had been devouring since childhood.

Her second lover, Leon, is somewhere between Rodolphe and her husband on the all-important manliness scale. When he tries to seduce her, she repulses his initial advances and he shyly apologizes. A description of that is followed by a revealing sentence: "Emma was seized with a vague fear at this shyness, more dangerous to her than the boldness of Rodolphe when he advanced to her open-armed". Eventually Leon gets the hint.

Emma's impatience with Charles's literal-mindedness and her strong desire to be lied to are made explicit in a scene that follows the death of Charles's father. Charles is being typically sincere about his mourning, shedding tears and saying all the things people usually say when their loved ones die. Emma is so bored with all that that immediately afterwards she welcomes the chance to talk to the shopkeeper and usurer Lheroux, who practically drowns her in insincerity every time they meet. Lying, noticing other people's lies - those things are less boring to her than honesty for the same reason that the romance novels she reads are more interesting to her than the real world.

Because of their secularism most modern reviewers of this book concentrate on the corrosive effects on Emma only of the sappiness and romanticism of the novels she loves so much. Charles's mother, however, diagnoses a very different problem when she calls them "bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child," she goes on. "Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly."

Does it say anything about Flaubert himself that he put such words into a novel that ends with the heroine's suicide? Can it really be that Charles's mother was speaking for the novelist here? Perhaps. While Flaubert has obvious sympathy for Emma, he never shows any such feelings for the pharmacist Homais, a militant secularist who mocks Christianity on dozens of the novel's pages. Homais is portrayed in a negative light in every single scene in which he appears, while his biggest adversary in arguments over religion, the priest Bournisien, is usually shown sympathetically.

One of the fun things about reading any classic novel is finding all of its inevitable anachronisms - things that point out how radically our world has changed since the book was first published. For example, early in the novel Flaubert goes on for a while about how ugly Charles's hat was. Nothing made in that period seems ugly to us now, does it? Fine art museums built in the 21st century routinely look worse than 19th century prisons.

It's hard to believe now that Flaubert had to defend this essentially moralistic tale in court against charges of immorality. He was especially criticized for the phrase "platitudes of marriage", incorrectly believed by some at the time to vaguely justify Emma's adulteries. Modern would-be censors would far more likely be incensed by the mention of "the ardent races of the south", which appears during a description of the singer Lagardy.

Emma and Charles implicitly agree with each other about their respective values in the sexual market. He can't believe he managed to marry someone so far above his league. She can't believe she ended up with someone so far below hers. Since they come from very similar economic backgrounds, their mismatch has nothing to do with social class. It is biological in nature - one of the obvious problems is that Charles simply doesn't have enough testosterone to be able to genuinely attract women of Emma's level of beauty.

Is what's good in the sexual market good for a civilized society as a whole? It's hard to believe that Flaubert would have been uninterested in that question while writing this book. He had certainly depicted Charles as being more productive and useful to the world than Emma. And at the very least, Charles holds his own on that score against Leon and Rodolphe. By far the most emotionally moving part of the novel is the last chapter, which concentrates on Charles’s fate after his wife’s death.

If you read up on Flaubert, you'll inevitably learn that he worked hard on his style. He spent countless hours getting each word of each sentence just right, treating his novels almost like poetry. I liked Flaubert's clear sense of morality and his unsentimental insightfulness about relations between the sexes, so I would have been happy to report to you that I loved his use of language as well. But that would be a lie. Having read the whole thing in French, I found its style clear and unobtrusive, but nothing more than that. Since French is not my native language, I very well could have missed some of the great man's stylistic subtleties. However, I did not find anything extraordinary about the language of the two English translations I've looked through either. If the translators involved were aware of Flaubert's stylistic awesomeness, then they clearly failed to reproduce it in English. This is, of course, not impossible, so I should probably withhold final judgment on it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stupid Word Tricks

What you see below grew out of playing with words that mean different things in different languages. For example, in my native Russian the phrase "O CHE" can mean "about a dream" or "about sleep", depending on the context. How do I connect that to Che Guevara? Now how do I do it in verse? Here's the result:

O CHE

I dreamt of Che last night, not sheep.
Here's what this dream entailed:
Che said he could not fall asleep.
He tried some meds. They failed.

"Screw meds," I told him, "Never use
That capitalist crap.
I think it's clear that self-abuse
Leads quicker to a nap.

And if at first that does not work,
Imagine a cute chick
Who shouts 'O Che!' and goes berserk
While looking at your pic."


In French the next title means "how people talk".

COMMENT ON CAUSE

"How come we talk the way we talk,"
Jacques asked his friend Gaston
While they were going for a walk
Through streets of old Lyon.

"Would you agree that our words lack
Precision, purpose, flare?"
The other promptly answered back:
"My friend, I just don't care.

I'd rather talk about the cause
Of substance and the void,
Of being, essence and the laws
Revealed by Sigmund Freud.

I'm sorry, Jacques, but you'll admit,
Compared to all of that
The silly topic you submit
Would lead to mindless chat."

"Your view is wrong," said Jacques to this,
"I know the cause of it."
"You do? Then tell me what it is."
"You are a pompous twit."


I know, I know, I could have gone more "adult" with the next one. The title means "thick fur" in German.

DICK FELL

Meet Dick - a hunter by his trade
Who specialized in bears.
Throughout the winter he was paid
To shoot them in their lairs.

He risked his life and mental health
To get their thick, brown hides.
Though not a certain road to wealth,
This work had some fun sides.

One day, while sipping Absolut
In tropical Ceylon,
He saw a bear, but could not shoot -
His ammo was all gone.

This beast had fur that was so thick,
It looked like a huge mop
As it was charging for our Dick
While slobbering non-stop.

Dick fell while running from this bear.
Alas, he died at work.
At least no PETA nerds were there
To laugh at him and smirk.

The title of the next one means "that sea" in Russian.

TO MOPE

I've come to the seaside to mope.
The sea - it has swallowed my hope!
I had a good girlfriend, you see,
Until I encountered that sea.
But then on a fateful cruise,
Quite probably led by booze,
She cheated on me with the crew.
With every last one of them, too.

Now all I have left is to mope.
But also, perhaps, to hold hope
That one of those days
She gets a malaise
And no VD clinic can cope.

The next title means "the weight" or "the burden" in German.

DIE LAST

You've gone to your high school's reunion dance
And everyone laughed at you.
You wouldn't have wowed anyone, not a chance.
Some did, and that made you blue.

One's failure in life is a terrible weight,
A hideous burden to bear.
However, I do have advice for you, mate:
Die last and you'll beat them all square.

Deny yourself things you would normally crave,
Don't smoke, only drink half-and-half.
And maybe some day, when they're all in the grave,
You'll have your belated last laugh.


The next title happens to mean "Willis' corridor was light" in German.

WILLIS' GANG WAR HELL

Bruce Willis was shooting a movie
For which he was paid pretty well.
His character, chief of a juvie,
Taught kids to transcend gang war hell.

Before he could play this jailer
An obstacle had to be faced:
A hall in his giant trailer
Had way too much light for his taste.

"Can I really focus on drama
When everything's so freaking bright?"
He whined to his favorite llama
While looking away from the light.

As crew members fixed this, perspiring,
Production was hastily shut.
That cost lots of money, requiring
Three mentoring scenes to be cut.


Believe it or not, in Russian the next title means "Vlad, the book about poppies goes to Kate but sake goes to us." Sake, of course, refers here to Japanese rice wine. You'll notice that the title has BOB, where its translation has Vlad. Why? The name Vladimir is usually shortened to Vova in informal Russian speech. Since the Latin letter V normally corresponds to the Cyrillic B, VOVA ends up being spelled as BOBA in Russian. Russian grammar decrees that in the imperative case (used for giving orders and drawing people's attention), a given name's final vowel needs to fall away, making a BOB out of BOBA. This is purely coincidental, since the names Robert and Vladimir have nothing to do with each other etymologically.

BOB, TOM O MAKE KATE A HAM CAKE

Professional cook Tom O'Dell
Enjoyed a worldwide renown
Since business was going quite well,
He hired a sou-chef, Bob Brown.
Tom O and Bob B
Cooked dinner for three
One day for a bash uptown.

A different Tom, his ex-girlfriend Kate,
A Russian mob hit man named Vlad
Were all ringing in a new year till late
The two chefs were cooking like mad.

As Bob added ham to a bowl of cake mix
Vlad took out his gifts from a sack:
Some sake for Tom and a book full of pics
Of poppies for Kate who liked smack.

However, in haste Vlad made a mistake,
Delivering booze to the girl.
This gaff almost made his good buddy shake:
"Old Vlad," he said, "you're such a churl!
The book is for her, the booze we can take,
And later on, try not to hurl."

The title of the next one means "so cute" or "so beautiful" in Spanish.

TAN LINDA

Linda was a real looker,
Pretty as a peach.
Jealous girlfriends often took her
Tanning to the beach.

They would tell her she'd look better
Like a lobster burned.
That she'd be a real trend-setter,
Never to be spurned.

Then they'd badmouth her like crazy
Right behind her back.
No, you wouldn't call them lazy
Once they start to yak.

But when summer turns to fall,
Normal way prevails:
Linda - fairest of them all.
Jealous friends - beached whales.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glossophilia

The second word of this blog's title refers to my love of languages. Linguistics will probably be a recurring topic here. I'll start with a table showing the current state of my knowledge of various tongues. I used a 0 to 10 scale with 0 meaning no knowledge and 10 meaning native-level fluency.


Reading

Understanding When Spoken

Speaking

Russian

10

10

9.5

English

10

10

9.5

German

7.5

1

0

French

8.5

2

0

Spanish

8

5

2

Portuguese

7.5

1

0

Italian

6

1

0

Chinese

5

0

0


I spent the first 17 years of my life speaking Russian, and the most recent 18 speaking English. Russian words don't come as easily to me as they once did, and yet I never got rid of a light Russian accent while speaking English. Therefore I don't speak any language well enough for a 10! Isn't that scary?

The table below shows my estimates of the difficulty of learning language X by a hypothetical native monolingual speaker of language Y. The X ("to") languages are arranged horizontally, the Y ("from") languages are arranged vertically. I used a 0 to 25 scale with 0 being easiest and 25 hardest. For those who don't know, zh is Chinese. This table is extremely unscientific and was created strictly for fun.





T

O






X

ru

en

de

fr

es

pt

it

zh


ru

X

4.5

4

4.5

3.5

4.5

3.5

25

F

en

5.5

X

4

3

2.5

3

2.5

25

R

de

5.5

3

X

4

3.5

4

3.5

25

O

fr

5.5

3

4.5

X

2

2

2

25

M

es

5.5

3

4.5

2

X

1

1.5

25


pt

5.5

3

4.5

2

0.5

X

1.5

25


it

5.5

3

4.5

2

1.5

2

X

25


zh

7.5

6.5

7

7

6

6.5

6

X




First Post!

This blog will simply be a collection of my musings and half-baked ideas about history, literature, language, politics and anything else that catches my interest. I've long wanted to read through Great Books in their original languages, reviewing each one as I go. Perhaps I'll do some of that here. If I see a movie or read a good non-fiction book, I'll also post a review.

I drew the animated GIF you see in the top right corner of this page using a mouse and MS Paint more than a decade ago. Unfortunately my face resembles that picture now more than it did then, making it not entirely inappropriate as this pseudonymous blog's sole visual representation of its author.