Friday, September 17, 2004

Warning: Amateur Critic!

Did you know that the new release Criminal (John C. Reilly, Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a remake of the Argentine film Nine Queens? The original was so good that I found myself entranced by it despite (a) not being able to hear the sound, as Alice was watching it on her iBook with headphones, and (b) ostensibly being very busy cleaning my room in preparation for ScavHunt. The plot and dialogue are brilliant all the way through, and the payoff is stupendous. I hear that Criminal was done well as a remake, so if you haven't seen Nine Queens, go and see Criminal or rent the original. And while you're at it, get The Spanish Prisoner, which is up the same alley.

I've finished a slew of books this summer, most of them nonfiction. Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas was a collection of essays he wrote for Scientific American, some interesting, some great, some forgettable. It falls short of his masterwork Gödel, Escher, Bach, one of my favorite nonfiction books, but I'd recommend you read the chapters of Metamagical Themas on the Prisoner's Dilemma. Roger Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind failed to really refute the strong A.I. hypothesis, but offered the most cogent explanations of Turing machines, computability and entropy that I've read. As a bonus, he presents an intriguingly plausible conjecture for quantum gravity, which might reconcile quantum mechanics with the large-scale phenomena we actually observe. I almost recommend the book.

I also read two very different novels over the summer; one might say that Doctor Zhivago and Brideshead Revisited represented the universal and the particular. I can't say how deeply Zhivago moved me without sounding like a fool. The characters and plot are flung about with reckless abandon, in an overarching effort to encapsulate all the grand ideas of the time and to express the themes of love and duty, art and change, suffering and joy- and it works superbly. The characters are more types than persons, the coincidences trump anything out of Dickens, the prose is dry and the imagery shallow, the climax requires Yuri to do something I don't believe he would actually do, and yet the novel floors me with the grand inarticulate cry of its meaning.

Brideshead is the opposite in this respect: the book has the sense of real life to it. Evelyn Waugh humbly and perfectly captures the mystery of each character, rather than allowing the reader to "fit" any of them inside their mind. The book avoids contrivance in plot almost entirely. The characters speak as we all do; discussions of grand topics end with them speaking at cross-purposes and confusing themselves, rather than with the pronouncements which can only be invented by the hand of an author. Brideshead uses foreboding only in the way that life does: in retrospect it all makes sense, but at the time you have no idea what might be portended. The humble idea of the author comes through naturally in the climax, as a surprise of sorts and without a heavy-handed explanation.

My hierarchy of novels might now need reordering. Or perhaps scrapping. Maybe it's juvenile to rank my top five books of all time (perhaps I did so last year only because I'd just seen High Fidelity). But in any case, it's been a worthwhile summer in literary respects as well.

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