Three Movies and a Book
I suspect most people who read this blog regularly have already seen this--after all, you're the ones who told me about it. But a brief description for those who haven't: it's about a seriously messed-up family in rural Missouri. and is a very grim portrayal of the methedrine trade that seems to be doing to a lot of rural and small-town America what crack did to the big cities. The father is mixed up with the local meth (and who knows what else) syndicate. After being arrested, he has put the family farm up for bail money and disappeared. The mother is mentally ill in a pretty serious way, completely non-functional. There are three children: seventeen-year-old Ree and two much younger siblings. As the semi-adult on the scene, it falls to her to try to salvage the family and their home.
Ree needs to find her father and get him to show up for his court appearance. Naturally she goes first to his criminal associates. They don't want any questions asked. Things get ugly, and that's enough plot summary, in case anyone who's reading this hasn't seen the movie.
It's an excellent piece of work, but extremely grim, though not hopeless. Take two parts rural poverty, one part menace, and a dash of horror, and set it in the middle of grey-brown mountain winter. Not pretty, but worth seeing. I must say, too, that it captures the general atmosphere of a certain element of the rural South all too well. (No, Missouri is not "the South" exactly, but the poor white culture that we think of as Southern actually reaches into parts of the Midwest.) I don't mean the drugs and the heavy violence, but the basic culture: the way the people talk, the way they deal with each other, the houses with old cars and other machinery strewn around the property, and so forth. The film mainly shows only the darker side, which is only one part of the picture, but accurate as far as it goes. The acting is excellent. I was amused to hear a figure of speech which I used to hear frequently from someone I worked with who came from a similar background: "useless as tits on a boar."
I have not read the novel on which the movie is based, by the way.
Thank You for Smoking
This is a comedy based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name, which, again, I have not read. A black comedy, I should say (is that still allowed?), which follows the fortunes of a spokesman for the tobacco industry as he tries to make his employer look like a benefactor of mankind. Deeply cynical, he meets regularly with a couple of lobbyists for the firearms and alcohol industries. The three call themselves the M.O.D. Squad--Merchants of Death. I wouldn't recommend it strongly, but it's pretty funny in places. There is a sex scene which, like most, would have been better left off-screen.
I hate to say it--I'm embarrassed to say it--but within the limits of the sort of thing it is, this is a great movie. I recorded it when it was shown on AMC several weeks ago and watched it in half-hour bits. (It is crazy that we have cable TV and only use it for watching Alabama football, PBS, and movies most of which we could easily rent.) Years ago--and I think this is not the first time I've described this phenomenon--I saw part of it on TV in a hotel while I was at some conference or training. I had seen the last half or so of it, and every time I saw it mentioned I wondered how the story started.
Really, don't laugh: as action movies go, I doubt they get much better than this. The villains are really bad, the action is spectacular and for the most part not totally unbelievable, and the hero is really a hero, albeit a flawed one (naturally): in the end his strongest motivation is his love for his wife and the attempt to save her from the villains.
I suppose anyone with the least bit of weakness for this sort of thing has already seen it, but if not, try it sometime when you want a couple of hours' entertainment. Die Hard II is not nearly as good, in my opinion.
Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell
One of my children gave me this book, which is subtitled The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, for Christmas, inscribing it to "Indecisive" from "Overthinking it." I was skeptical, because I hadn't read any of Gladwell's books and think of him as a purveyor of the sort of pop social-science that tries to explain way too much. I ended up somewhat fascinated, though, not so much by any overall thesis, which in the end is not really on offer here (the subtitle seems to promise something which is not delivered), but by the case studies presented and what they reveal about the working of the human mind.
I have suspected for a long time that there really is such a thing as female intuition, and that it's nothing mystical, but rather a very strong sensitivity to little things, operating in part below the level of consciousness. I have seen instances in which it was strikingly correct and instances in which it was strikingly incorrect. That sort of phenomenon, and those two sorts of instances, are what the book is about. It begins with a (true) story in which the Getty museum was offered a piece of statuary represented as being ancient Greek. The museum paid legal experts to investigate its ownership and history, and scientists to investigate its age. It was pronounced genuine, and the purchase was made. But from the beginning there were doubts on the part of art experts who knew at first glance that something was wrong.
Evelyn Harrison was next. She was one of the world's foremost experts on Greek sculpture, and she was in Los Angeles visiting the Getty just before the museum finalized the deal with Becchina. "Arthur Houghton, who was then the curator, took us down to see it," Harrison remembers. "He just swished a cloth off the top of it and said, 'Well, it isn't ours yet, but it will be in a couple of weeks.' And I said, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'"
The book contains one anecdote after another like that, in which someone reaches an instantaneous sub-rational conclusion and is convinced of its truth though he may not be able to explain why he believes it. My favorite of these is a tennis coach who usually knows when a player is about to double-fault on a serve. He didn't set out to make these predictions as a stunt, he just noticed that he usually seemed to know. And--this is the really interesting part--even after devoting a great deal of effort to trying to figure out the signal, watching a great deal of film, breaking it down frame-by-frame and so forth, as of the writing of the book he still doesn't know how he does it.
And then there are the cases where an intuitive snap judgment is wrong, the most dramatic and tragic being the Diallo case in New York, in which an unarmed man was killed by police who seem to have genuinely believed, first he was holding a gun, then that he had fired it.
What is the lesson here? That sometimes quick intuitive judgments are uncannily right, and sometimes they're completely wrong. When they're wrong, they tend to involve situations where something is at work that causes us to think we see what we expected to see, or are particularly alert for, such as a gun in the hand of a suspected criminal.
There is one situation, the only one I can think of, where I've noticed myself having the sort of ability that those art experts in the Getty story had. I worked for ten years as a software developer, and still do a certain amount of that work in my current job. I was never as good as the best programmers with whom I worked, but I did notice one gift that not everyone else seemed to have: when there was a problem with software that I had been involved with, I often was able to go straight to the source of the problem without any preliminary investigation, without looking at the evidence. This was obviously based on knowledge, but my judgment did not make conscious use of that knowledge. Not a particularly significant instance, but an interesting one in light of this book, because I remember wondering how I knew. Whether or not the ideas in this book have any applicability to situations in which one finds oneself, it's an interesting read.