May 17th, 2006

belzoni

Back and Gone Again

* We just got back from OKC yesterday, and I'm off to BookExpo in DC tomorrow, so this will, of necessity, be even more scattershot than usual.

* I strongly recommend Adam Zamoyski's Holy Madness, which I read last week; a dauntingly good and complete review by John J. Reilly is here. Among the more interesting takeaway bits is Zamoyski's note that Samuel Johnson's famous dictum "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" refers to the old 17th century understanding of the word "patriotism," meaning someone who upholds the inherited traditions of the patria at the expense of king and parliament, or specifically in Johnson's context, someone like Edmund Burke and the American 'Patriot' rebels. So, the next time someone quotes Johnson to you, you can look them in the eye and say "I agree. We should give unqualified support to our king and parliament."

* Fairness compels me to note that a perhaps equally likely interpretation is the entirely uncontroversial (and fairly uninteresting) notion that scoundrels may take on the coloration of any noble cause, patriotism included. See, for example, this interesting take; and perhaps hit this page for a nice sampling of Samuel Johnson's further thought on the topic, and some evidence that Johnson did not habitually use the archaic form of "patriotism," contra Zamoyski.

* Helen Mirren makes a wonderful Elizabeth I in the HBO miniseries of the same name, but I despair of anyone ever managing to convey Gloriana's sheer control -- intellectual, moral, political -- in a script. Yet again, we have her as a Poor Woman Undone By Bad Men, though Jeremy Irons manages to infuse Leicester with tremendous (and possibly undeserved) heart. Helen Mirren at least breathes proper fire on occasion, but even Bette Davis and Errol Flynn had a better script to work with.

* Alfred Hitchcock reviews Paul Greengrass' superb United 93:
"Let us suppose that three men are sitting in a room in which a ticking bomb has been planted. It is going to go off in ten minutes. The audience does not know it is there either, so they go on talking inanely about the weather or yesterday's baseball game. After ten minutes of desultory conversation the bomb goes off. What's the result? The unsuspecting audience gets a surprise .... That's all. But suppose the story were told differently. This time, while the men still do not know the bomb is there, the audience does know. The men still talk inanities, but now the most banal thing they say is charged with excitement. When one finally says, 'Let's leave,' the entire audience is praying for them to do so. But another man says, 'No. Wait a minute. I want to finish my coffee.' The audience groans inwardly and yearns for them to leave. That is suspense."
Now assume they're talking about baseball for 111 minutes. Riveting, constant tension.

* Finally, my thanks to everyone for their kind words and condolences on my father's death. The interested can read his obituary here; I wrote the first draft of it, and my sister and mother touched it up. Special thanks to voxel, heathey, kaynorr, gracefuleigh, gnosticpi, and Cheryl for the flowers they sent.