peteg's blog

Mildred Pierce

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Dunno why I picked this one, a Warner Brothers black-and-white from 1945. Attitudes are changing with the man drought due to the war. It is a bit strange as the bland 1950s lay just over the horizon when the women here are doing it for themselves.

Joan Crawford is solid, and I haven't seen her in anything else. (Apparently this is her finest.) Her first husband was wooden, and her daughter so totally a 90210 valley girl, too vacuous, but that didn't get in the way of the moderately crap plot, where the mother-daughter relation got stretched out of shape a few too many times.

Mildred's restaurants are so very American — some composite of diner, bar, formal thing... a place where Tom Waits could get a start.

Neil Sheehan: Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon

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I picked this up from the UNSW Library after Ellsberg made many references to him. I was hoping he would tell the story of the cities post-1975 but it is instead mostly an account of the return to Vietnam in 1989 of Neil Sheehan, war reporter for United Press International and later the New York Times. These are a dime-a-dozen as so many people with the ear of a publisher blew through Saigon in those days.

For the most part this is just another war memoir, with the requisite interview with the seemingly eternal Võ Nguyên Giáp that McNamara et al did a few years later. Far more valuable would have been an account of how the culture has changed, but Sheehan is not equipped to do so, for he never learnt that much about the Vietnamese in all the years he spent there. I was a bit surprised that this was his first visit to Hà Nội; I sort-of assumed all the hacks made a pilgrimage there as guests of the regime, but Sheehan explains that they were picky, only inviting those they thought would disseminate their propaganda.

Most interesting to me was his take on the street names of Sài Gòn. Here's the meat of pp70-71:

The "Vietnamizing" of the city had also gone forward in the renaming of the streets. Most of the renaming, like that of the thoroughfare from the airport for Nguyen Van Troi, had been done simply to honor Communist martyrs, but in other instances there had been a deliberate attempt to wipe away the shame of the colonial past. A main crosstown street in pre-1975 Saigon was called Phan Thanh Gian, for a nineteenth-century mandarin who poisoned himself to apologize to the nation after being pressed into ceding the first Vietnamese territory to the French — Saigon and the Mekong Delta. In the catechism of the Vietnamese Communist nationalists, suicide did not excuse handing over part of the motherland to a foreign conqueror; Phan Thanh Gian should have refused and died resisting. And so history had been brought full circle by expunging his name and renaming the street for the triumph that drove the French from Vietnam — Dien Bien Phu.

Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and father of bacteriology who remained an icon to older Vietnamese physicians, was still too great a reminder of the colonial period to be given a reprieve for his good works. Pasteur Street was now called Nguyen Thi Minh Khai for the fiery daughter of a mandarin family who became the most famous woman martyr of the Vietnamese Communist cause, executed by a French firing squad at Hoc Mon near Saigon in 1941. The original U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters had been located on Pasteur Street. [...] The Vietnamese Postal and Telecommunications Service had taken over the main building. [...]

Renaming the city's main street was a problem for the new rulers. Until 1954 it bore the name Catinat. Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington's first strongman, then gave it a perfectly good Vietnamese name, Tu Do, which means "freedom". The name could not be allowed to stand after 1975; it was too evocative of the American era, of Diem [...]. The victors therefore renamed the street Dong Khoi ("uprising"). When Diem changed Catinat's name to Tu Do, the Saigonese continued to call it Catinat. Not until the late 1960s, when Diem was long dead, did the younger people begin to call it Tu Do. Now only out-of-towners call the street Dong Khoi.

Cross-checking a Caravelle from the early 1960s (e.g. this one) and a current-day one or Google maps bears out the claims of the first paragraph, allowing that the "Vietnamizing" began a lot earlier (1954 at the latest), and that the Vietnamese idiom is fatherland, not motherland, as in the Fatherland Front that was active in the South when Sheehan was there the first time.

The second paragraph rings totally false, however; Pasteur then and now is the same street (see the above maps), and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was Hồng Thập Tự (red cross) on the old Caravelle map.

I'm more curious to know about the street with the embassies on it, now Lê Duẩn, previously Thong Nhut (maybe thống nhất, "united"), running from Independence Palace down to the zoo, past the Diamond Plaza and Notre Dame church. As Lê Duẩn died in 1987, I wonder when the name changed, and if it was given a (distinct) new name in 1975.

Here's some old postcards and things with these old street names.

Incidentally the Securency scandal marches on, and for once Julie Bishop is making sense. I wonder how squeaky (clean) their recent deal with Canada is.

Fay Grim

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I don't think this is much chop on a second viewing. Parker Posey is willing but her character is weak. Thomas Jay Ryan dominates Henry Fool but is reduced to a bit player here. I hope Hartley can do something new sometime soon.

Night and the City

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This is the wrestling noir that Barton Fink did not write in 1950. The director, Jules Dassin, also directed the later Rififi, but the real attraction is (of course) Gene Tierney. Strangely her role is tiny and she is completely disempowered; a big part of her charm in e.g. Laura is that her character (and not just her looks) overwhelms men. She is criminally wasted here.

The setting is London, the East End, the underworld, and the plot fails to find much traction. Richard Widmark in the lead left me completely cold, all Jim Carrey-ish in his puppy-dog ingratiation without the humour or whatever it is that Carrey has.

X-Men: First Class

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At The Ritz at 3:15pm, upstairs in pokey theatre 6. I guess I should have hurried.

It was pretty much exactly what I was expecting: I could watch Fassbender all day, and McAvoy was fine, albeit not particularly American. (I didn't remember him from The Last King of Scotland.) Director Matthew Vaughn (of Kick Ass fame) is big on the titillation: we meet the forever fetching but implausible C.I.A. agent Rose Byrne running around in her undies, and all the girls henceforth are unzipped to the sternum (or lower). At times January Jones's anatomy is more convincing than her acting. I don't know if she's any good, I don't watch Mad Men, and it didn't help that her Emma Frost was totally M.I.A. from the second half; I figured she'd be somehow pivotal ala Jean Grey but she simply wasn't.

I liked the James Bond aesthetic-in-passing, another genre-revival gimmick that sat well with the whole genesis/reboot game. The arc was very similar to one of the earlier x-men movies, you know, the one where Magneto wants to mutanize everyone, Jean Grey does the black swan thing... err, yeah. Maybe there is only one plot and it is the same as the previous three or four, genocide on a flight of fancy, a franchise in a state of permanent reset. The problem is that follow-ups can only really innovate in the fighting scenes, the CGI, and the cast of mutant bit players, i.e. the relatively boring bits.

Dana Stevens reviewed it for Slate.

Nozick and Libertarianism

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Slate has an article on social philosopher Nozick and libertarianism. I'm not totally convinced that he can be dismissed this readily, but there it is. His Wikipedia entry makes some bald claims that he did renounce his raw libertarianism of the early 1970s by the end of the 1980s in a book...

I've been vaguely curious about abstract notions of "justice" since I bought Amartya Sen's recent book on the topic, where he takes John Rawls to task, I think. It is still on the shelf after a year or two, unfortunately. As far as I understand it, Sen's "capabilities" incorporate both talent and context, that is, a person's talents are a bit useless if she is not in a position to use them, and as society plays a large role in providing (mediating) opportunities, social obligations arise as practical necessities. This seems pretty obvious, and Quiggin beats libertarians over the head with more-or-less this point. Utopianism ahoy...

Update: Metcalf posted a rejoinder to all those who doubt him.

Barton Fink

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A 1991 Coen Brothers. I didn't get into this anything like Intolerable Cruelty. Goodman is solid, Judy Davis sultry. Turturro leaves me cold in that Charlie Kaufman kinda way. What's in the box? Tarantino's soul from Pulp Fiction, or Gwyneth's head from Se7en?

Intolerable Cruelty

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A Coen brothers effort from 2003. I liked Clooney here, at least in the first half where he is distracted and bored but very professional. The whole thing is pretty cheap I guess, especially the Jewish Davros who owns the law firm and the Hollywood socialites. Zeta-Jones does not much more than look fabulous in a variety of frocks. Things particularly fall apart on the segue from N.O.M.A.N. to love.

James Banerian: Vietnamese Short Stories

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I extracted this venerable collection from the ANU library after reading the author/editor/translator's review of Dumb Luck; he also reviewed the epic The Moon of Hoa Binh.

There's a good overview at Amazon. I felt the collection was on the weak side, with the overt and mostly irrelevant political attitudes the author expresses in the introduction not helping it a great deal. (To give him credit these do draw attention to his other books, on the lives of the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s and 1980s, a period far more recent than most stories here.) It is ironic that đổi mới cranked up within a year of this book's publication (1985/1986 depending on who you believe), sparking something of a renaissance in Vietnamese literature, including criticism of the regime (e.g. Dương Thu Hương). These days the pervasiveness of the internet has cracked the cultural scene wide open, and everyone can bemoan the lack of intellectualism everywhere.

None of these stories provided much of an insight into traditional Vietnamese culture; mostly they paint Rousseauan man-in-his-natural-state pictures of upstanding poverty, something easy to romance and much harder to envy. In that way it is a bit like Henry Lawson without the authenticity of his first-hand (living it) experience.

The pick for me was Monk Tue by Khái Hưng, which has been posted here.

Bullitt

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Steve McQueen and an already balding Robert Duvall as a taxi driver on the mean streets of San Francisco 1968. Jacqueline Bisset is Steve's arty girlfriend, demonstrating that even as a lowly-paid glory-free copper, McQueen is irresistible to the girls in men's work shirts. Unfortuately the whole thing is painfully slow and lacking in suspense. Maybe it's a forerunner of the Dirty Harry kind of reactionary west coast cop flick. The ending is pure Heat, a foot chase in an airport. The middling car chase is interminable and apparently famous.

The Hudsucker Proxy

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A Coen brothers from 1994, and they're on the road to the Dude. A stylised take on industrial America in the late 1950s. I like Jennifer Jason Leigh (probably due to The Machinist) and she is fine here as a noir-ish high flying journalist. Paul Newman does a great soulless corp man caricature. I have never been a fan of Tim Robbins but I'll grant he's OK here, in a sort of Jim Carrey vacuous mode. Bruce Campbell gets a small cameo and should have milked it for more.

Blood Simple

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The Coen brothers' first feature, from 1984. Maybe a template for Shallow Grave, sorta. A twisty murder on commission set in Texas.

Another Year

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A salutary lesson on missing the boat. Naked this isn't; it is a movie of manifest shallows. The characters all lacked the capacity to surprise. Has Mike Leigh been watching too much Lars von Trier? I had some hopes that Imelda Staunton would anchor the thing but it was not to be.

Cane Toads: an unnatural history

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I saw this 1988 (bicentennial?) documentary on the strength of the reviews of its recently released successor, Cane Toads: the conquest: here is Paul Byrnes looking back to the original with fondness while frying the rehash, and Liz Farrelly happily drawing parallels with other low-lifes.

I didn't find it as funny as I hoped, though the Queensland scientists seemed to be sufficiently in on the joke for the gallows humour to freely flow. The farmers brought the stupidity of the whole thing into sharp relief, playing the blunt straight men to the clowning of the urbanites. The druggy from wherever was a bit cheap, though the bloodless Joh-voters with "mate" toads were damn near scary. Queensland just isn't that much of a joke these days, I guess; probably due to all those Victorians moving up there with expectations of government services and other forms of socialism.

The mouse-eating sequence put me off my dinner.

Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

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I read this on the strength of the movie The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and my general interest in Ellsberg as a technocrat during the American/Vietnam war.

Ellsberg's game is probably not so different to McNamara's, viz to defend his position in conflicts that have mostly faded from memory. While he is not exactly a whizz kid, nor the best and brightest, being born a decade or so late, he admired, and to an extent emulated, defence secretary Robert S. McNamara and others whose cold war values were forged in the moral clarity of World War II. Thus this text often makes it seem that that he is a handmaiden to history, where he is aware of the problems (the inability of the U.S. Government as an institution to learn about the Vietnam situation and translate that learning into (in)action) but the mathematical techniques he mastered and furthered at Harvard are of not much help. It is the time when M.A.D. rules and no-one can see past it.

The late 1950s and 1960s were a time of realpolitik, of breaking a lot of eggs and not being too picky about the omlette. In some ways Ellsberg's point of view is not so far from Kissinger's, who gets a remarkably even-handed writeup here; apparently Ellsberg held Kissinger in high regard, and maybe still does, perhaps up to his time as Nixon's National Security Adviser; certainly not after the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate. I found it strange that Ellsberg does not weigh in on Kissinger's October surprise in 1968, where he reputedly encouraged the North Vietnamese delegation to delay negotiations until after the Presidential elections, promising better outcomes from a yet-to-be-elected Nixon administration. It was a potentially pivotal moment that is clearly related to Ellsberg's central concern of shortening the war.

The most vibrant parts of this book are when Ellsberg is in the south of Vietnam, from 1965 to 1967, talking about his friendship with John Paul Vann, who incidentally got written up by the Neil Sheehan, the bloke Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to; I guess in the period between then and now Ellsberg self-identifies as an iconoclast and Vann was a powerful model for that. Ellsberg's stories about being out on patrol, of semi-suicidal driving on roads encroached by jungle, and the links he draws with his later thinking about the futility of this war are a composite of poignancy and triteness, a need to test his manhood while leaving his brain in first gear. His conversion from hawk to leaking dove is done on the road to Damascus, and his account of this critical juncture in his life is irritatingly oblique; just what are his parameters for violence? How should the U.S. use its hegemony, then and now? Were there any worthwhile outcomes from the war at all? (It is clear to me that nothing could justify the war, but some make the case that it did scare the dominoes into falling other ways, or something like that.)

The late-1960s peacenikery gets a solid treatment, as does the trial. Both could have been spun out a bit longer, with more detail; it is intriguing that there was no U.S. equivalent of the Official Secrets Act — meaning that a U.S. citizen cannot betray the republic by revealing information to the U.S. public. I wonder if that still holds.

Ellsberg alludes to a lot of people and things that were going on at the time, sometimes too briefly, with not enough background. I grant that it is tough to communicate all the context in a tale like this one, and I guess you just have to chase up many sources. I'm sure someone somewhere has stitched together a list of books about Vietnam and Watergate and a good order to read them in; here's a start:

... but yeah, the list is endless; I barely know where to start if one wishes to get to grips with the mathematics of the day or more formal/academic histories.

Overall the book reeks of technocracy, and is strangely impersonal. Why did he choose to undergo psychoanalysis at that particular time? He does allude to his sex life, but nowhere close to where this biography apparently goes. (I can't be arsed reading it now.) This is not mere prurience on my part, for I would like to know if he got seduced into the peace movement; that would be a far more convincing reason than any Ellsberg himself stumps up here. For all of this, I got sucked in and read it over a couple of days, after a moderately slow start. The approximately 450 pages was sometimes a slog, with some sections that seem to have escaped editing, and a bit too much flabby repetitiveness.

Ellsberg casts a long shadow through the media, as it was they who actually communicated the Pentagon Papers to the public — a role currently filled by wikileaks — and in doing so, scored a major First Amendment victory over government claims of "national security". Thus the broad interest in the official release of the papers, forty years later:

What is the take away story here? Get yourself into a position of trust and then violate it? Avoid being a morally compromised/vacuous technocrat? Ultimately Ellsberg fares better than McNamara, if only because he does recognise how bankrupt the whole gig was.

Ghostbusters

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I don't recall having seen this before. Bill Murray is mega here, although no one misses out as Aykroyd and Ramis spray the lines around.

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Vale, Gil Scott-Heron.