So here we have Otto von Bismarck--19th c. Prussian chancellor who orchestrated the smackdown of Austria and France, the architect and promoter of a hardline, blood and iron military culture designed to lead the newly formed German Empire to dominance. But look at this quote from a letter he wrote to his fiancee in 1847:
"On a night like this I feel uncommonly moved myself to become a sharer of delight, a portion of the tempest and of night, and, mounted on a runaway horse, to hurl myself over the cliff into the foam and fury of the Rhine, or something similar...A pleasure of that kind, unfortunately, one can enjoy but once in life."
It's all so very Shelley, isn't it? Note, though, that he does manage to finish off with a practical tone.
I should fling myself into the Hudson one morning, in a fit of drama! Unfortunately, I'm a fairly decent swimmer, and I suspect it is against my nature to go under without at least some argument.
It's year-end list time! Many respected and prestigious publications are busily putting out their lists of the best ten, fifty, one hundred books published this year. Well, let them skulk in the colorless comfort of their safe, dull base ten lives, I say. Let them hide from making the hard cuts and choices. As a welcome antidote to such craven cowardice, I introduce the 9 Best Books I Read During 2006.
(Pay close attention to that title, by the way, because this isn't just books new in 2006; it's books that I read during 2006, no matter when they were published. It is my fond hope that some of these that were missed the first time around will somehow be discovered again.
9. Robert Louis Stevenson, by Frank McGlynn (1994). Solid bio that debunks a lot of the myths around the man. Let's just say that Mrs. Stevenson doesn't come off too well.
8. Into Africa, by Martin Dugard (2003). The story of Stanley's search for Livingstone. Lots of points for covering a subject that hasn't been done to death (as far as I know). Dugard seems to be rather impressed with himself, but I'll forgive him that for his harrowing descriptions of travel back in the day. Be grateful every day that you do not have to deal with tsetse flies.
7. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW II, by Sarah Helm (2006). British spies, failed intelligence operations, secrets, cover-ups and invented lives.
6. Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick (2006). Pilgrims, Puritans, and Strangers come to the New World. Much more than you learned in social studies and ten times more interesting than what you think you know.
5. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the race to electrify the world, by Jill Jonnes (2003). A rather astonishing group of characters make it possible for me to type this on a computer powered by an AC adaptor, in a room lit by an incandescent light bulb.
4. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan (2006). I thought I knew a little something about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I was so, so wrong. Egan makes the unimaginable horror of this disaster come to life through the personal stories of those who lived through these bleak times. My only gripe was some odd bits of repetition.
3. The Big Bang, by Simon Singh (2004). Everything you ever wanted to know about the origins of the universe and how people figured it out. Clear and easy to understand for even the most nonscientific nonscientist, with plenty of great stories about the weird and wonderful characters who made the big discoveries (Tycho Brahe, 16th c. silver-nosed astronomer is a standout).
1. (a tie)Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas (1997) and The Echoing Green, by Joshua Prager (2006). As I think I've said before, these books remind me a lot of each other, hence the tie. The main story in each (the 1906 murder trial of ex-Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, featuring Big Bill Haywood, Clarence Darrow, and a cast of thousands; stolen signs and their role in the NY Giants' 1951 pennant-winning victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and, well, a cast of thousands) is just a springboard to fascinating tales of other times, places, and people. Big Trouble wins points because it's set in one of my favorite time periods, but The Echoing Green had a heartfeltness that I loved. So they balance each other out, in a way (and yes, I know heartfeltness isn't a word and I don't care).
Honorable Mention: Johnny Tremain and Kim, because they should always be mentioned.
(Pssst--this is a 2006 preview. For 2007, look here.)
It's another big-time movie time of year. Let's take a look at some of the upcoming releases:
Blood Diamond: This movie looks like it's trying to walk a fine line between being a Very Important Issue Movie and a Big Adventure. I predict it does a little of both, but probably excels at neither. I mean, you can go see it, you won't feel like it's a total waste of time, but I bet you won't be knocked out by it either. I also have this dread that it runs about 165 minutes. It looks like one of those epics run amok, doesn't it?
Apocalypto: The general consensus seems to be "beautifully shot, excessively violent." This should surprise no one.
The Holiday: Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet switch houses and find romance. I promise that I will turn over a new leaf and try to become a better person because I am scared that this is the kind of movie I will have to watch over and over in hell.
Inland Empire: David Lynch. Probably not a good one to see if you're sleepy or drunk.
Eragon: Based on a popular fantasy novel, looks like they shot it after taking a "Make your own LOTR fantasy epic" home-study course. Here's my question--I gather, from the commercials, that it has something to do with dragons. So the title (which is either a place or person, I'm not sure)--do they deal with the fact that it is the word "dragon" with the first letter just switched one place up the alphabet? Can't you just picture the author sitting there, thinking, "dragon...no, can't just use that. How about aragon? Nope, place in Spain. Bragon? Sounds boastful. Cragon? Eragon? Fragon? Okay, I guess I'll go with E, that's good enough." I'm just wondering if this is acknowledged. Like does this story take place long, long ago in a time when dragons were known as eragons. I'm curious about this. Not curious enough to see it, though.
The Good German: I have to admit, I have rather high hopes for this one. Likeable cast and Steven Soderbergh tried to shoot it like a '40s studio film (and if it runs less that 105 minutes, I'll know he's captured the essence of the time period). Please don't disappoint me...
The Painted Veil: SomersetMaugham via Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, and Edward Norton. Seems like it has good ingredients, but I'm betting more on it being ponderous and literary.
The Pursuit of Happyness: I'm sorry, I can't forgive this movie for misspelling happiness. I don't care what the reason is.
Charlotte's Web: A live action version with cgi animals and a needlessly all-star voice cast. Someone I know saw a preview of this and said she nearly threw up when they showed the almost too-realistic Templeton the rat playing in a vat of cotton candy. Realistic rats and spiders aren't always real crowd pleasers.
Dreamgirls: Oscar buzz all over the place on this one. I'm betting on it being very accomplished but maybe a bit too smooth. Again, like Blood Diamond (and you're probably not going to see these two paired too often), I'm thinking it might be just professional, fine, but almost dully flawless. Then again, Bill Condon is in charge, so I have to have some hope.
The Good Shepherd: De Niro directs, impressive all-star cast, seemingly solid story...see Dreamgirls and Blood Diamond.
We Are Marshall: Based on a true life tragedy. The latest in inspirational, uplifting sports stories.
Notes on a Scandal: Prestigious British pic with Actors Acting.
Miss Potter: Renee Zellweger, Ewan MacGregor, Emily Watson. Beatrix Potter's life story. Do they cover the part where she boiled animals down to their skeletons so she could study their anatomy?
Pan's Labyrinth: Guillermo Del Toro does fantasy horror again. I've heard very good things about this one.
Rocky Balboa: Is there any movie that is an easier target? How many ways can you joke about this one? Wouldn't it be the best joke of all if it turned out to be good? The odds are against it, but still, I am begging for someone to surprise us.
I'm sure that there are plenty of others I've missed, but this is enough for now.
There is no good reason why I should be thinking about my two favorite movies of 2004, but I am.
Just a plot reminder: Spider-Man 2 is about, well, Spider-Man and his struggle with the responsibilities of being a superhero. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about what it would be like if you could have negative memories erased from your mind.
At first glance, it would seem that these two movies don't have much in common. Yet I am convinced they do, because the big question at the heart of both is just this: "Is it worth it?" For Spider-Man, the "it" is having to put the needs of others--kids trapped in burning buildings, passengers on runaway trains, victims of petty thieves, and of course, entire populations threatened by vengeful archvillains--above what he wants in his own life; in ESotSM, it is heartbreak, sadness, and death as the endgames of happiness.
Both movies come to the same conclusion, that is, yes. Spider-Man realizes that carrying out the responsibilities he's been handed are worth personal sacrifice; the story of the main couple in ESotSM (we love our acronyms) shows that eradicating the bad memories of their breakup is a poor tradeoff for the loss of the wonderful moments they had; enduring the pain at the end is actually worth it because of what came before.
None of this is breaking news. All the cliches come to mind--nothing ventured, nothing gained, you have to take the good with the bad, etc., etc. I guess what intrigues me, though (aside from just the idea of two such seemingly disparate movies sharing the same theme) is that despite all these aphorisms that are pounded into us, all the movies, plays, and books that make this point, despite the obviousness of it all, is how easy it is to forget, or even ignore this. People still constantly try to insulate themselves from pain or inconvenience, no matter how aware they are of the greatness of the potential payoff, even when that may be nothing more than a few minutes of joy that nonetheless can carry you for years.
In ESofSM, there is a scene in the waiting room of the memory-erasing business where people sit holding all the physical mementos of the relationship they are trying to erase. One woman has a dog dish with a dog's name printed on it. Someone recently pointed out that my dog, who is on the older side, is going to die, probably soon, and that I should be prepared for that. Now I may be exceedingly naive about some areas of life, but I'm pretty aware that all living things die. I asked, "so what am I supposed to do, sit around dwelling on that?" "No, but you just, you know, it's going to happen and you should think about what you're going to do." I had a feeling this was a veiled allusion to euthanasia and decisions about that, but decided to miss the hint and move on; I mean, the conversation was just absurd. Yes, I know she is going to die and that will be very hard. But would I give up one second of having her over the last few years? No, of course not. Don't even suggest it. I would hate to lose those memories, even if they included days to come where she may be sick and I will cry with helplessness, knowing there is nothing I can do, not sure what to do. Yet I do know people who say they don't want to get another pet because losing one has been too painful; I've known people who've said they didn't want to get their children pets because they didn't want them to suffer when it died. Seriously. What kind of life is that, though?
This might be the dumbest thing I've ever written. I mean, all of this is obvious, none of these are new concepts, but for some reason these movies have been on my mind. I guess the real message to be taken away from this (and one the film industry should note) is that 2006 is almost over and I can't think of one movie from this year or last that has made as much of an impression on me.