L.A. Thrillers

Mostly by accident, this week I wound up watching two different thrillers set in Los Angeles: Chinatown, the 1974 classic directed by Roman Polanski and starring a young, amazingly handsome Jack Nicholson and a frighteningly seductive Faye Dunaway; and Point Blank, a 1967 film directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.

Everyone knows about Chinatown. It’s a gripping film with a plot that closely resembles Churchill’s line about the Soviet Union: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Deservedly, Chinatown received 10 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor for Nicholson and Actress for Dunaway, Director, and on and on) and won one, for Robert Towne’s screenplay, which is – judging by the film itself – a pretty fantastic piece of writing. It’s a shame that the soundtrack didn’t win the Oscar, too, because it is, note for note, just as good as the screenplay is, word for word.

Point Blank, I think, far from a classic movie, but it was based – very, very loosely – on a a pretty fantastic piece of writing, the classic 1962 noir novel by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), The Hunter. The novel is set in 1962 New York, and brilliantly evokes that setting, but Point Blank is set, mystifyingly, in San Francisco (including, bizarrely, Alcatraz) and Los Angeles. The film takes all kinds of crazy and destructive liberties with the book’s tight plot, and veers off into what seemed to me to be cut-rate attempts to outdo Hitchcock, especially the what-the-fuck-is-happening psychedelic scenes in Vertigo. It doesn’t work.


Perhaps because pretty much every aspect of society is going off the rails, I haven’t paid enough attention to the hearings to confirm Sonia Sotomayor. Judging by the Times’ coverage today and by a zillion tweets from liberal commentators like the guy behind DailyKos, today’s opening session was a chance for the Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee to set fire to any rickety bridges between the Grand Old Party and Hispanic Americans and for the Democrats on the committee to affirm that she is, in fact, eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

Though of course I’m eager to see Sotomayor confirmed – for political and sociological reasons as well as judicial and legal ones – I can’t quite decide which is a worse symptom of the Republic’s political health. On the one side, we have powerful white men who belong to a venerable party that was founded, in part, to pursue a form of racial equality now embarrassing themselves with borderline-racist attacks on someone who – but for the color of her skin and maybe her gender – exemplifies every up-by-your-bootstraps story they love to tell. On the other hand, we have powerful white men and women (Feinstein and Klobuchar!) having to assert, with the backing of an Everest of evidence but against shrill cries from the American Falangists, that Sotomayor can, in fact, do the job that her entire professional adult life has led toward.

Sigh. Patrick Leahy, don’t fail me now.

And Jeff Sessions? Here’s my favorite tweet of the day:

RT @KagroX: Hilarious to hear Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of AL decry Sotomayor’s reference to “heritage.” Never happens in Alabama.

The History of Perspective

The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe The Mirror, the Window, and the Telescope: How Renaissance Linear Perspective Changed Our Vision of the Universe by Samuel Y. Edgerton

My review

This is a mind-bending book that blends excellent history of science with excellent history of art. The core of the book is examination of the origins and early use in visual art of optical perspective, the technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane. The book has a good account of the invention (or at least rediscovery) by the Florentine craftsman and architect Brunelleschi of perspective in 1425, when he created two works (both now lost) that were the first effective, rigorous, and theoretically sound uses of perspective since at least antiquity. The section on Brunelleschi were wonderful, not least because they placed the reader in early-Renaissance Florence. The idea – much less the historical fact – that perspective was invented defies common sense, but Edgerton shows that while everyone does see perspectivally, representing the world in perspective required a genius like Brunelleschi.

Edgerton goes on to describe – with somewhat less surety – Renaissance artists’ use of perspective to make religious art seem more lifelike and therefore more powerful: a good perspectival painting could make the viewer feel that he or she was actually inside the space occupied by, say, the Madonna and Christ Child, or the crucified Christ. Edgerton goes even further than this, linking perspective in art to the development of the “perspective tube” – the device we call the telescope – and to the use of the telescope by Galileo to discover that the moon is actually lumpy, not smooth. Here, Edgerton is on firmer ground again: Galileo was an excellent artist, and was able to determine, based on his views of the moon in 1509, that the patterns of light and dark were actually sunlit and shadowed regions on the moon’s surface – a realization he made because he understood perspectival effects – and because he could render objects – even lunar craters viewed through a telescope – with perspectival techniques.

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Princessed Out

As someone who’s routinely and systematically harassed by subjects of the Disney Princesses – or, as their littlest lady errant says, the “Dizuh-dee Wincesses” – I was amused today to discover a great set of photographs by Dina Goldstein that tell counter-fairy tales, like this one of Snow White living unhappily ever after:

Snowy by Dina Goldstein (via JPG Mag)
"Snowy" by Dina Goldstein

The other six are just as good, and two more are in the works…

Van Gogh Drawing

Vincent Van Gogh was a pretty good painter, of course, but he was also a great draftsman. Here’s one of his best drawings, a portrait of Joseph Roulin, who was Van Gogh’s postman during his period at Arles – and the guy who take care of Van Gogh after the ear-cutting thing. Van Gogh drew and painted many members of the Roulin family. These paintings and drawings are among Van Gogh’s best figurative works. And this drawing is one of the greatest ever.