Archive for the ‘Dorian Gray’ Tag

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Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Patriot by Charles Cerami

I was in the library, fresh from dropping off my newest slate of returns, when I took the chance to wander through the biography section. It’s rare that I ever go to the library with any specific intent on what I’m going to pick up (I believe the last time I did that was to pick up a copy of Cesar Milan’s Be A Pack Leader, which was excellent), and this time was no different. I was rummaging through the shelves, and nothing in particular was catching my eye. I was about to pack it in when my eyes finally fell on Banneker. I had no specific memory of the name, but it rang a bell. A cursory glance of the inside cover told me all I needed to know, “… he humiliated Jefferson…” SOLD!

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland in the early 1730s. From an early age he was regarded as something of a whiz, and local people from all over town were asking him for his help with their accounts at the tender age of six. His family wasn’t well-off, but nor were they destitute. His parents ran a small but growing tobacco farm and instilled in him a healthy respect for work, and allowed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits so long as he still did his work on the farm. His mother was a freed indentured servant, and made sure that her children would be able to read.

Benjamin’s first love was the mystery of space and the stars. Until racial prejudices became more extreme, it was common for young Benjamin to do his farm work, sneak a quick nap, and then spend most of the night making observations about the stars and later, notes about movements and his personal theories about what was what.

As Benjamin grew older, his family came to depend on him more and more. By this point he was somewhat obviously a prodigy (he had hand-crafted a clock with wooden gears), and perhaps with an eye toward exposing their son to greater horizons, they sent him to Baltimore one summer to sell the family’s tobacco at market. This trip would bring both tragedy and salvation to young Benjamin.

The tragedy would occur in the form of being truly exposed to the wide world of racism. To help with the wagon and animals, Benjamin’s uncle came along with him on the trip. In an episode whose horror I can’t begin to imagine, they’re beset by slave catchers. Now, Benjamin is able to convince them that he’s free and that his papers are genuine — but his uncle isn’t so lucky. His uncle is beaten and taken away by the slave catchers, never to be seen by Benjamin or anyone in his family ever again. As if that wasn’t enough, upon bringing his tobacco to the Baltimore market, the merchant more or less says he’d be within his rights to throw Benjamin in irons for stealing such excellent tobacco. As a result, Benjamin is forced to sell the crop at a fraction of its value to avoid imprisonment. 

Understandably, for the rest of his life Banneker seemed riddled with fears that everything could be taken away from him at any time.

But, it was in Baltimore that Banneker made a connection whose impact would forever change his life… it was here he was introduced to the Ellicotts, a prosperous family of Quakers whose sons had an interest in everything scientific and mechanical. This family became something of a surrogate sponsor for Benjamin’s education, as they were constantly lending him their books, and their old equipment (such as old telescopes), and these things would allow him to achieve a depth of understanding that seems absolutely impossible for such a humble scientist in the early 19th century.

As Benjamin grew older, he seemed to embody the idea of the absent-minded professor. He toiled on his farm only as long as needed to assure his survival, and then spend the rest of his time reading books, following planetary movements, watching the Ellicotts build water mills, and writing what notes he could. 

His big break occurred when he was drafted by the Ellicotts to assist in the surveying of what would become Washington, D.C. The idea that a black man would be part of such an important undertaking certainly produced a lot of uncertainty, but Ellicott had complete faith in Banneker as his chief assistant. Banneker apparently had the most important job — the job of making sure that the lines struck the day before were continued exactly the next day. In order to do it, in once again required staying up late hours into the night to make sure that the measurements of the stars were where they should be and that the work could proceed apace the next day.

After the surveying of the Washington grid, Banneker decided to follow one of his lifelong dreams, again with the helping influence of his friends the Ellicotts. Banneker long desired to make his own almanac, complete with tide charts and other astronomical information. He had spent most of his life compiling the data, and with the Ellicotts willing to go to bat to secure some printers, Banneker decides to go ahead and write the damn thing. The Almanac becomes a surprise bestseller, in large part because of the uniqueness of the author. He almost instantly becomes something of an abolitionist hero, and Banneker is suddenly inundated with visitors and letters. It is also around this time that he starts hearing gunshots right outside his door in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it was something about Jefferson’s hypocrisy that made Banneker write a letter to him. Perhaps it was a new-found pride from the success of his Almanac. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the constant racism he’d experienced that finally needed expression; whatever the case, he sent Jefferson a handwritten copy of his almanac with a note which said in part:

“…although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” 

Jefferson, with his standard two-face, welcomes the letter and forwards it to a friend in Paris while later writing about how much of Banneker’s “achievements” were probably just Ellicotts’.

I alluded earlier to Banneker’s uncanny knowledge of the cosmos. It’s absolutely impossible to know how much knowledge Banneker was able to accumulate, because shortly after his death his cabin was burned down, taking with it everything he’d written that hadn’t been on loan to Ellicott at the time. I, for one, find it absolutely incredible that he had correctly deduced that most stars likely had planets around them, and that there could even be life on those other planets. That is some serious out-of-the-box thinking for a humble astronomer farmer. I only wish we could have had a deeper look into the life’s work of a man who was so capable of rising above the conventional expectations to see what might be.

Four Stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I grabbed this book the same day I picked up Banneker as it was actually a featured bookend at the edge of the young adult section. I was actually shocked at how faithfully the book followed the movie (previously reviewed). It did have the welcome addition of fleshing out the character of Harry Wotten, but otherwise was more or less exactly as depicted in the movie.

It’s an easy read, and an entertaining one at that. Four Stars, same as the movie which it spawned

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As a starter, if you could only read one book about Alexander Hamilton, this is the one you want to pick up.

Having covered a good cross-section of Hamilton’s life in the previous review, I’ll only add a couple salient points here.

The book does an exquisite job of establishing the team of Washington and Hamilton as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. During the Revolution, Washington routinely trusts Hamilton to get jobs done, going so far as to allow Hamilton to issue orders on his own initiative as if they came from the hand of Washington himself. As the French become more involved in the war, Hamilton acts as the prime translator between Washington and the French, also being sure to communicate the spirit of the meaning of the words and not just the rote translation. There is such a multitude of uses that Washington trusts to Hamilton, and no other, that when Hamilton decides to leave, Washington goes almost to the point of saying the war might be lost without him. But Hamilton is young, eager to prove himself, and desiring a chance to prove himself in battle, not work a desk for the war. Washington reluctantly releases him from his service, and they begin a largely benign estrangement which lasted a few years.

One thing that the Revolution taught to both men was the complete inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. Wars take a lot of logistical support, and so much of Washington and Hamilton’s time was spent begging for supplies and money that they became, in my words, hateful of the government as it stood. Wars are tough enough, but then combine those difficulties with a government incapable of providing more troops, furnishing supplies, or paying their soldiers, and it becomes no wonder they might harbor negative feelings about the sovereign.

One thing that constantly astounds me reading books on Hamilton is how prolific he was. He was, for example, running a thriving law practice, and organizing the Federalists in New York when he wrote his share of The Federalist Papers. As the Secretary of the Treasury, he managed to organize his department from scratch into a functioning whole seemingly overnight (interesting side note: Washington had an aid as President, Jefferson had four secretaries at the State Department, Hamilton had over 200 employees). In addition, Chernow describes Hamilton as, essentially, Washington’s Prime Minister, because Hamilton certainly had the President’s ear, but seemed to have his hands involved in absolutely everything. 

One thing I want to add here is that Hamilton’s time at the Treasury seems to be above reproach. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, and the Republicans in Congress got it in their heads that he was stealing from the Treasury. They ran several investigations against him (at one point trying to get him dismissed by making him do a full audit in a tiny deadline, which he managed to do with no trouble), and never once found him guilty of any wrong-doing. In fact, his time in public service only served to bankrupt him, because he felt that continuing to work while working in public service would only lead to compromising conflicts of interest. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own pension to avoid having a conflict regarding the Revolutionary War debt speculators.

Also, and I know I beat this poor horse to death, but Jefferson is a piece of shit. Again, this book laid out loads of hypocrisy by Jefferson — as Governor of Virginia during the war, he abandoned office and ran from the British, yet calls Hamilton a coward. Jefferson owns slaves, yet calls Hamilton lazy! He hates everything Washington is doing in foreign policy, but he won’t resign his job at State, and pays State funds to a publisher to talk trash on Washington… There’s plenty more, and a lot of them seem completely petty, but I’d like to move on to a few closing points.

When Jefferson becomes President, he still hates the Bank and the Treasury, and appoints his friend Albert Gallatin as Treasurer and tells him to look into things and see how corrupt Hamilton made it. Gallatin was no friend to the Bank, nor Hamilton, but his final report should remove any doubt about the corruption charges:

” [this is the most amazing department in government]… Hamilton did such a perfect job organizing the Treasury that it will be a sinecure ever after for whoever holds it.” 

This book was easily a five star masterpiece. Eminently readable, with a great cross-section of stories about many different Founders, it does wonders to make the wide cast of characters seem knowable on a personal level. We still might not be able to understand why a genius like Hamilton would allow himself to be blackmailed and destroyed by a whore, but no one knows anyone well enough to understand every impulse that goes through their head. In the end, it’s a great biography that shows a man all too human.

One final anecdote that made me do a genuine laugh out loud.

Hamilton, in his final years, is designing his dream home. As he so often does, he goes into exact details of minutia, from number of bricks for the walkway and number of trees for the yard. In his customary thoroughness, he writes to a botany professor for advice:

“… I admit, I am as unfit on this topic as Jefferson is to helm the nation.”

Thanks for reading, next up we’ll have The Guns of August and Clarence Darrow.

Posted March 21, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Movie Reviews   Leave a comment

I’ve been laid up due to various ailments, the likes of which affect us all from time to time. As a result, I’ve been doing less reading and more lounging, which has brought me to watching movies while I play games of online Dominion, the newish Colonization, or an occasional foray upon the Oregon Trail.

My movie ratings system (essentially the same as the book system):

1 star = non-redeemable schlock
2 star = only worth it if you’ve got nothing better
3 star = acceptable, worth checking out
4 star = go out of your way to see this, it’s exceptional
5 star = a masterpiece of film

So, without further ado…

The A-Team 

I have to admit, this movie surprised me. I was expecting something thrown together in ten minutes to inspire yet another Hollywood cash-out based on an existing name. Instead, I found myself treated to an entertaining action movie.

The movie starts with Liam Neeson being beaten by some underlings for a drug lord. He’s about to be executed when the gun inexplicably misfires, and the mooks decide to let their dogs eat him while they go to meet up with their boss. As they shut their door on their prisoner, we find out that Liam held the gun’s firing pin in his mouth, which he uses to pick the lock on his handcuffs before the dogs can get to him. They don’t stand a chance, and we get our introduction to Hannibal. 

We next see a man in a mohawk racing through the streets in a tricked-out sports car. He does some gratuitous drifting and leads some cops on a chase they can’t hope to keep up with. After a narrow escape, he brings his car to a chop-shop, where he’s looking to get back his original ride. He finds the car, and the chop-shop crew try to take him out to keep their prize, but the guy kicks so much ass that they’re all left crying for momma. After a lot of ass-kicking, he rides his black SUV off into the sunset. 

Meanwhile, Hannibal is wandering through the wilderness hoping for find a vehicle to catch up with the thugs who left him for dead. He manages to cross paths with a black SUV, who stops find out what’s going on. After shooting the driver in the shoulder to complete his car-jacking, he discovers the man-with-the-mohawk to be an Army Ranger. Insisting his mission is one of life or death for a fellow ranger, the driver agrees to help Hannibal, and we get our intro to B.A. Baracus.

Next, we see a head poking through a totem of stacked tires. The corrupt chief of police is ranting about how he’s above it all and that no foolish American’s are ever going to shut him down. He’s about to order his men to shoot the prisoner when all hell breaks loose, with a black SUV now screeching around their encampment with guns ablazin’. The prisoner gets knocked over, which allows him to quickly roll out of danger while a small bloodbath rages around him.

After a successful pickup, we’re introduced to the A-Team, and learn that was the mission that brought them all together. They’ve since gone on over 100 missions together, and are one of the most effective units in all Special-Op services throughout the military. The ensuing plot has them searching for missing Mint plates, which allow its seedy possessors to make genuine U.S. currency.

Without giving anymore away (the intro took maybe ten minutes or so), I was pleased with the movie. The action was entertaining, and it had enough of a story to keep you interested while they went about their mission. A pleasantly surprising movie worthy of 3 stars. 

Adaptation 

It’s more or less impossible to summarize Charlie Kaufman movies without them sounding ridiculous. “Oh, it’s a movie about a portal that lets people who enter co-exist in the head of the actor John Malcovich!” This movie is no different. All I’ll say by means of fleshing out its edges are that it’s a movie about writing a screenplay for The Orchid Thief Charlie Kaufman writes about his attempt to write a screenplay about a book he likes but can’t figure out how to make acceptable to a broad audience. So the movie ends up following him while he’s fighting to overcome writer’s block and his own colossal inadequacies, as he strives to meet the deadline for turning in the script.

If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but as his movies often do, it works. There’s some fine acting involved (which isn’t ruined by Nicolas Cage playing two parts, a miracle in and of itself), as well as some genuinely funny moments… one of my all-time favorite scenes in all cinema is in this movie. Nicolas Cage (playing Charlie Kaufman), is dropping off a friend of his after something very much resembling a date. She’s doing some very playful flirting, and he’s completely oblivious, saying that he hasn’t been sleeping well, so he should probably go right home as soon as he’s done seeing her. She leaves the car disappointed, and Nicolas Cage says to himself how easy it would be to just walk right back to her door and kiss her as soon as she opens it. “It would be romantic, it would be something we could tell our kids about… That’s it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do…” And then he drives away.

While scenes like that do wonders to warm the soul, the movie has enough “humiliation porn” that I was uncomfortable at different points. It’s a tough thing to explain, but the older I get the less I like watching scenes where a character is exposed to ridicule. The easiest examples would probably be in The Office where Michael Scott constantly puts himself or someone else in a position where they have no graceful out, and are left like a fish on line to dangle before everyone’s eyes. Or course, having written this I can’t think of any specific one, but I’m sure you can recall instances where you almost can’t bear to see a scene because of it. 

So, before further digression claims my attention, I’ll say that I found this to be on a whole an entertaining movie. There are some scenes which cause a dangerous backslide which make things tough to watch, but the ending does a nice job to justify it all being worthwhile. Still, I have to hold my rating to 3 stars.

The Picture of Dorian Gray 

I caught this on TCM a few days ago, and was glad I decided to record it to the DVR.

Dorian Gray is a relatively innocent and easy-going man who decides to have his portrait painted by one of the finest painters in England. By coincidence, while he goes to pick up the painting he’s introduced to one Henry Wotten, a hugely smug and self-indulgent man who numerous flaws can’t help but make him imminently charming. Young Dorian is rather entranced by Wotten’s easy morality and vice, and is somewhat swept away by his desire to try things Wotten’s way instead of his own. 

Dorian finds a young woman on the cheap side of town whom he becomes immediately entranced with (a young Angela Lansbury). Having spent some time together, he decides to marry her. He introduces her to both the painter and Wotten, and the painter couldn’t be more pleased for Dorian. Wotten, on the other hand, is sad and bored with Dorian. Out of curiosity, Dorian asks what Wotten would do, and Wotten explains how he’d seduce her and be done with her. Dorian laughs the advice away, but finds himself following it to the hilt when he’s with her later in the evening. After following Wotten’s advice, Dorian unceremoniously dumps her, and writes her out of his life forever. 

He later learns that she’s killed herself, and he can’t believe the news. Wotten, of course, is envious of Dorian, because he’s never had anyone go to the trouble of killing themselves over him, but goes on to tell Dorian that there’s nothing he should be ashamed of… life goes on. He insist Dorian go to the opera with him that night to forget about her, which he does.

As the movie continues, we see Dorian becoming more and more of a pariah in the community. No one has anything definitive on him, but there exist all sorts of rumors about his deceits and betrayals. However, we discover that, as the years go by, Dorian isn’t aging. Instead, he is a picture of perfect youth, decade after decade. However, his portrait changes constantly. First, it had some worry-lines around the eyes, and some tension wrinkles in the face, but as time goes on his portrait becomes increasingly hideous, magically revealing the depths of his horrid soul…

This movie was pretty damn good. While I want to stress that Wotten is a horrible, horrible person, you can’t help but love every time he’s on screen. He has such a nonchalant detachment from the morals and morays of society that he completely steals every scene he’s in. His easy demeanor while casually dismissing any objection to his methods or his perspective is intoxicating, and his entire character is probably best summed up in his quote:

“I love persons better than principles, and persons with no principles better than anything at all.” 

Otherwise, the rest of the cast does their job admirably. I was surprised that Angela Lansbury got herself an Oscar nomination for her role, which I thought was excessively brief. The movie has some slow points, such as the song-and-dance numbers, but I wager that’s more a flaw of contemporary convention than a fuck-up on the director’s part. Also, the movie does have one major special effect, where the otherwise black and white movie segues into color while viewing the portrait of Dorian Gray. It’s not much by today’s standards, but I bet at the time it was jaw-dropping.

So while Dorian Gray isn’t the most amazing movie ever, I still have to give it high marks because of its great characters and story. I’ll give it four stars and call it a night!

Posted February 14, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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