1/6/08 New York Times Digest

No Country For Old Men

1. “The Falling-Down Professions”

“Make no mistake, law and medicine — the most elite of the traditional professions — have always been demanding. But they were also unquestionably prestigious. Sure, bankers made big money and professors held impressive degrees. But in the days when a successful career was built on a number of tacitly recognized pillars — outsize pay, long-term security, impressive schooling and authority over grave matters — doctors and lawyers were perched atop them all. Now, those pillars have started to wobble.”

2. “Welcome, Little Smart Car, to the Big American Road”

“Here are some of the vehicles it will encounter on the American road, all drawn at the same scale.”

3. “No Happy Ending in Dickensian Baltimore”

“The show’s gloomy fatalism is echoed in the real-life fate of a series that this week picks up where it left off: The drug trade changes hands, but never stops, and ‘The Wire,’ which is unquestionably one of the best and most original series on television in decades, has never received an Emmy Award in a universe where ‘Boston Legal’ has five and ‘Desperate Housewives’ has six.”

4. “Borges and the Foreseeable Future”

“A growing number of contemporary commentators — whether literature professors or cultural critics like Umberto Eco — have concluded that Borges uniquely, bizarrely, prefigured the World Wide Web.”

5. “Building Suspense Along the Trail of an Invisible Man”

“Allen’s startling admission leads to a shot of Mulanax looking straight into the camera in close-up. This shot is soon followed by similarly framed head-and-shoulder close-ups, first of Armstrong and then of Toschi, each staring directly into the camera. With these near-identical, shared looks, the three finally seem to see — perceptually, intellectually — the stranger before them, the story’s invisible man. In this moment sight becomes knowledge, however tenuously grasped. Not long after, referencing one of Zodiac’s ciphers, Toschi tells Allen, ‘Man is the most dangerous animal of all.’ Allen responds, ‘That’s the whole point of the story.’ It is also the point of this scene, which in under six minutes lays out the movie in miniature.”

6. “A Movie Star for All Eras, Even the Present”

“A thread running through his conversation is that they don’t make movies like they used to — smart, surprising, ambiguous — and should. That attitude partly explains why he is so often pegged as today’s Cary Grant. (‘Are you tired of hearing that?’ I asked. ‘Cary Grant must be tired of it,’ he answered.)”

7. “Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence”

“By compelling audiences to listen more closely, this unnervingly quiet movie has had the effect of calling attention to an underappreciated aspect of filmmaking: the use of sound. (Several critics, including A. O. Scott of The New York Times, have singled out the sound design for commendation.) ‘Even in a movie like this where people think the sound is minimal,’ Ethan Coen said in a recent interview, ‘it’s actually maximal in terms of the effects and how they’re handled.’”

8. “To Walk a Landscape Is to Know It”

“There are many reasons to have a holiday. Reculer pour mieux sauter, say the French: draw back the better to leap. We may want nothing but relaxation and rest. But as Sherlock Holmes knew, the best form of R&R is to do something different: a change is as good as a rest, if not better; and the best kind of change is to enter another world. And while all other cultures — like Lawrence’s Sardinia — offer a different world, there’s always the wilderness, the hills, nature, waiting for us just up the road, wherever we are.”

9. “On Double Secret Probation”

“At a time when most universities are tireless proponents of openness and diversity, fraternities and sororities are engines of sameness and conformity. In practice, most are racially segregated and strat-ified by class and income as well. You can’t get in if you don’t look and dress just like all the other brothers and sisters.”

10. “Keeping It Real”

“All these artifacts share the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel ‘The Man in the High Castle,’ calls historicity, which is ‘when a thing has history in it.’ In the book, a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: ‘One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no “mystical plasmic presence,” no “aura” around it.’”

11. “An Interface of One’s Own”

“Our redeemer is Scrivener, the independently produced word-processing program of the aspiring novelist Keith Blount, a Londoner who taught himself code and graphic design and marketing, just to create a software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product — the stubborn Word. The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk: ‘a ring-binder, a scrapbook, a corkboard, an outliner and text editor all rolled into one.’“Ring, scrap and cork sound like fun, a Montessori playroom. But read on — and download the free trial — and being a Scrivener-empowered scrivener comes to seem like life’s greatest role. Scriveners, unlike Word-slaves, have florid psychologies, esoteric requirements and arcane desires. They’re artists. They’re historians. With needs. Scrivener is ‘aimed at writers of all kinds — novelists, journalists, academics, screenwriters, playwrights — who need to refer to various research documents and have access to different organizational tools whilst aiming to create a finished piece of text.’“That ‘whilst’! It alone makes me feel like writing.”

12. “What Is It About Mormonism?”

“Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols — pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts — evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is.”

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