The Critic’s Temptation

Hitchcock:Some magazines deliberately select critics who don’t care about films, but are able to write about them in a condescending way that will amuse the readers. There’s an American expression; when something’s no good, they say, “It’s for the birds!” So I pretty much knew what to expect when The Birds opened….

I was in London during the Second World War when a picture by John Van Druten opened. It was called Old Acquaintance, and it co-starred Bette Davis and Claude Rains. The critics of two London Sunday papers both used the same tag line at the end of their reviews. What do you think it was? “Auld acquaintances should be forgot.” In other words, even if the picture had been good, they just couldn’t resist that line.

Truffaut: Well, in France they do the same whenever a film title ends with the word “nuit.” Les Portes de la Nuit is automatically labeled Les Portes de l’Ennui, and Marguerite de la Nuit is invariably referred to as Marguerite de l”Ennui. Even if the picture is fascinating, there are bound to be puns around the word “ennui“.

The lights of civilization

Jessie Benton Frémont, wife of John Charles Frémont the explorer, late in their life together, wrote of his fostering settlements in the West: “All your campfires have become cities”.

— J.D. McClatchy, Sweet Theft

Better than the opposite.

Vita Longa

The story is told — I think of Brahms — that the master was made to listen to a new score by a young composer. As he did, he kept raising his hat. The young man asked him why. “I’m just saying hello to old friends,” he replied.

— J.D. McClatchy, Sweet Theft

Cyclomatic Complexity

The 2015 direct-to-video film The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power is the sequel to the sequel to the prequel to the prequel to the sequel to the remake of Universal’s original 1932 The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff.

— Greg Ross

To matter forever

Do you unconsciously believe that Shakespeare was an objectively better playwright than his two main rivals, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson? If so, have no fear—as far as the world is concerned, he was. If you want to prove that he was, all you need to do is go through the texts of their respective plays and find the passages that validate the opinion most of the world already accepts. It will not be difficult, and it will feel like the differences you locate are a manifestation of merit. But you will actually be enforcing a tautology: Shakespeare is better than Marlowe and Jonson because Shakespeare is more like Shakespeare, which is how we delineate greatness within playwriting. All three men were talented. All three had enough merit to become the historical equivalent of Shakespearean, had history unspooled differently. But it didn’t. It unspooled the way we understand it, and Shakespeare had almost nothing to do with that. He is remembered in a way that Marlowe and Jonson are not, particularly by those who haven’t really thought about any of these guys, ever.

To matter forever, you need to matter to those who don’t care. And if that strikes you as sad, be sad.

— Chuck Klosterman

Practical constraints on speech

There are surely many things a man may hold, which at the same time he may feel that he has no right to say publicly, and which it may annoy him that he has said publicly. The law recognizes this principle. In our own time, men have been imprisoned and fined for saying true things of a bad king. The maxim has been held, that, “The greater the truth, the greater is the libel.” And so as to the judgment of society, a just indignation would be felt against a writer who brought forward wantonly the weaknesses of a great man, though the whole world knew that they existed. No one is at liberty to speak ill of another without a justifiable reason, even though he knows he is speaking truth, and the public knows it too.

— Cardinal Newman


Electricity is of two kinds, positive and negative. The difference is, I presume, that one comes a little more expensive, but is more durable; the other is a cheaper thing, but the moths get into it.

— Stephen Leacock


In Shakespeare’s early works hendiadys barely appears. Maybe popping up once or twice a play. Then, in about 1599, Shakespeare appears to have had a a moment and a revelation. He suddenly decided that hendiadys was his favourite form. You can draw a graph of the frequency and watch it leap up, peak, plateau, and drop away in what’s usually called his late (and not great) period. Now, I’m not arguing that hendiadys was the only thing that made those five tragedies great, but it’s worth noting that that’s when he used the rhetorical form. Hamlet is the top play, where he averages a hendiadys every 60 or so lines.

Hendiadys is “the substitution of a conjunction for a subordination”, or in other words, instead of saying “full of furious sound, signifying nothing,” you say “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The five tragedies are Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear.