Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XII

November, 2019

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Watched The Hunt for Red October (1990), a Tom Clancy thriller directed by John Mctiernan, which is why it feels like Die Hard (1988). Sean Connery is a Russian submarine captain betting the fate of his crew and risking WWIII in order to defect. Alec Baldwin plays sultry pain in the neck Jack Ryan. This may be Connery’s best role. Shares a surprising amount with Ice Station Zebra: a race to acquire doomsday military technology, a saboteur trying to destroy their own sub, and a climax forced by the unexpected arrival of the Russian navy. Overall, this movie is a treat for fans of conning towers. It doesn’t make sense why Ramius sends a note explaining what he’s doing beforehand, but without that note there is no plot. I felt a sense of sadness when Sam Neal started talking about is plans for the future, because that means he is going to die. I give it 3.75 recreational vehicles out of a possible 5 recreational vehicles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Rewatched The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), an Anthony Minghella film in which Matt Damon kills Jude Law, then Philip Seymour Hoffman. In the original book, Tom Ripley is a con man from the start, and going to Europe after Dickie Greenleaf was always part of a grift. I prefer Minghella’s version, in which love, wealth, and identity are entwined for Ripley so you can’t be sure whether he kills Dickie because he doesn’t want to go back to being poor, or because his romantic affection wasn’t returned, or because he’s a parasite taking over his host. Gorgeous photography, great score, terrible 90s title sequence. I would say scrub it out, but you can’t because it’s superimposed over the first few shots. There was an adaptation of this book filmed in 1960, but there are also two sequels to this movie filmed in the early 2000s, one starring John Malkovich as the title character, and one starring Barry Pepper. Believe it or not, seeing this movie is reputedly what inspired Tommy Wiseau to make The Room (2003). I give it 3.5 busts of Hadrian out of a possible 5 busts of Hadrian.

Plein Soleil (1960)

Watched Plein Soleil (1960), an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. As opposed to the book, and Minghella’s adaptation of it, there is no homosexual subplot, and Ripley gets caught in the end. He is basically a con man who gets in over his head, and almost lies his way out of it. This was Alain Delon’s first major role, and he’s good. The female lead chews with her mouth open. The guy who plays Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty bad. This version adds a lot of French-style slapstick bits, which were out of place, and some montages I didn’t need. It’s nice to see authentic, beautiful color footage of Italy in the late 50s. The 1999 adaptation is clearly superior in just about every way, yet its not rated as highly — not sure why. I give it 3 rubber hands out of a possible 5 rubber hands.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

Watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019), Quentin Tarantino’s rambling, revisionist fable about 1969. Leonardo DiCaprio is an aging action star trying to stay relevant, and Brad Pitt is his stunt double: an aimless, superheroic coolguy who can’t stay out of trouble. His character is established when he loses his job by kicking Bruce Lee’s ass. This movie has an astonishing number of cameos. I think it’s my favorite Tarantino movie. It’s dense with great moments, dialog, and things to look at, which is what I want out of his movies, and it’s not as bewilderingly eccentric as the last few have been. I know a lot has been said about him rewriting history in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and he does it in this movie: has there been a satisfactory explanation for what he’s trying to accomplish? The same guy who played Manson in Mindhunter plays him in this movie. I give it 4.25 donuts out of a possible 5 donuts.


The significance of a human experience can be measured by the quantity and quality of its art. By this criterion religion and erotic love are the deepest of our poor resources; but hunting, however distant on the surface, lies adjacent to them in the depths.

— Roger Scruton

This is the exact argument he didn’t make adequately in his book On Hunting. I’m very sympathetic to hunting as a pastime, I’ve done it myself, and in this book by a philosopher I was looking for a more reflective treatment of the subject than he gave me.

He calls it a memoir, and even says that it will not be a defense of hunting. But the rest of the book is about how great hunting is. So, rather than working as an honest memoir, it just felt more like an inadequate defense.


Grasp an idea and work it out to a successful conclusion. That’s about all there is in life for any of us.

— E.H. Harriman

The lunar age

Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.

— Thomas Jefferson

Owning dogs

[Hunting hounds] live still in their savage state, relieved of that constant and inachievable demand to mimic the manners of a moral being, which troubles the life of the incarcerated pet. They sleep in a pack in dog-scented kennels, hunt in a pack with their powers supremely stretched; they eat raw flesh, and not too much of it; they drink the brackish water of mud-stopped ditches; and the prices of every slackness is the rough end of the tongue. Once trained to hunt they can never be subdued to a household regime, and can expect nothing when their hunting strength has gone besides a shot in the head, often administered by the very man whose love is all to them. But their time on earth is a happy one; everything they do is rooted in their nature, and even the crowning gift of human love comes in the guise of species-life: for the huntsman is leader of the pack, first among the band of canine warriors. His authority is not that mysterious, guilt-ridden thing that appears to the pet in the down-turned milky eyes of his crooning captor, but the glad imperative of the species, miraculously incarnate in human form.

— Roger Scruton

Ne plus ultra

To die of age is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and so much less natural than others. It is the last and extremest kind of dying. The further it is from us, so much the less is it to be hoped for. Indeed, it is the limit beyond which we shall not pass, and which the law of nature hath prescribed unto us as that which should not be outgone by any, but it is a rare privilege peculiar unto her self, to make us continue unto it. 

– Michel, Signeur de Montaigne

Why should a man desire in any way 
To vary from the kindly race of men 
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance 
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all? 

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Montaigne passage is cited as an inspiration to Shakespeare in King Lear (II. iv. 139-41), but how about that line in Tithonus? Seems reasonable to assume Tennyson had read it.

Books Read in 2019

This year I read more fiction than in previous years. The actual number of titles doesn’t reflect what the pie chart of my reading time would look like, since reading fiction takes so much longer for me than non-fiction.

For much of the year, it felt like I didn’t read much at all: I spent a lot of my spare time working on a portfolio, applying for jobs, and so on, and so reading fell by the wayside until that situation was resolved.

I also devoted a couple of reading hours a week anyway to studying Latin (in the form of Lingua Latina), so that one book took up quite a bit of my time this year.

Fiction (25)

Discovering Jo Walton’s fiction was a highlight of the year. I’d known of her from her reviews, but hadn’t gotten around to checking out her books. Both of the titles on this list were great, though I think I give an edge to Lent.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn was much better, in my opinion, than Roadside Picnic. I’m sad to know that it’s something of an aberration in the brothers’ catalog, since I’d love to read something with the same eccentric, light, self-aware tone and relatively lucid plot.

The Alastair MacLean books were mostly consumed as audiobooks, as were the “Robert Galbraith” titles. There was a stretch of time there when I wanted a distraction. They were both fine. MacLean wrote post-war dad-thrillers.

The Jack Vance novels were part of a series: each book was short and light. Jack Vance books always have interesting ideas and dialog in them.

  • Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by McGrath, Titania
  • Ripley’s Game by Highsmith, Patricia
  • Brighton Rock by Greene, Graham
  • Kim by Kipling, Rudyard
  • Butcher’s Crossing by Williams, John
  • There Will Be Time by Anderson, Poul
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Strugatsky, Arkady
  • Hawkwood by Donachie, David
  • Concrete Island by Ballard, J. G.
  • The Long War by Pratchett, Terry
  • Ice Station Zebra by MacLean, Alistair
  • Lent by Walton, Jo
  • Bear Island by MacLean, Alistair
  • Partisans by MacLean, Alistair
  • Among Others by Walton, Jo
  • When Eight Bells Toll by MacLean, Alistair
  • Lethal White by Galbraith, Robert
  • Dark Matter by Crouch, Blake
  • Career of Evil by Galbraith, Robert
  • The Pnume by Vance, Jack
  • The Dirdir by Vance, Jack
  • Servants of the Wankh by Vance, Jack
  • City of the Chasch by Vance, Jack
  • The Silkworm by Galbraith, Robert
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Guin, Ursula K. Le

Non-Fiction (30)

This year I struggled to find non-fiction that made me want to read it. The year started off well enough, with several books by and about Montaigne, but ended with a long stretch of nothing interesting.

Northrup Frye was a high point. I wish he’d still been in fashion when I was studying English Lit, since his theory (while not totally satisfying) was still more interesting than the structuralists and postmodernists they were teaching us at the time.

Same with the Bloom: I’ve bounced off some of his books (like The Western Canon), but his death prompted me to pick up How to Read and Why on a whim, and I really enjoyed it. If it’d been the entire textbook in an introduction to western literature course, I’d still have gotten a lot out of the class.

  • A Walk in the Woods by Bryson, Bill
  • How to Read and Why by Bloom, Harold
  • What Makes This Book So Great by Walton, Jo
  • Peopleware by DeMarco, Tom
  • On Hunting by Scruton, Roger
  • Fortune is a River by Masters, Roger
  • I Wear the Black Hat by Klosterman, Chuck
  • Best. Movie. Year. Ever. by Raftery, Brian
  • The Vintage Mencken by Mencken, H. L.
  • The Big Screen by Thomson, David
  • Mysteries of the Mall by Rybczynski, Witold
  • How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been by Bayard, Pierre
  • The Old Ways by Macfarlane, Robert
  • Anatomy of Criticism by Frye, Northrop
  • Lingua Latina per se Illustrata by Ørberg, Hans H.
  • The White Darkness by Grann, David
  • The Sultan’s Istanbul on 5 Kurush a Day by FitzRoy, Charles
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Galbraith, Robert
  • Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Schreier, Jason
  • The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Luce, Edward
  • The Once and Future Liberal by Lilla, Mark
  • The Library Book by Orlean, Susan
  • The Best American Essays of the Century by Oates, Joyce Carol
  • Beating the Story by Laws, Robin D.
  • The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson, Erik
  • On the Future by Rees, Martin
  • The Living Thoughts of Montaigne by Gide, André
  • Shakespeare’s Montaigne by Montaigne, Michel de
  • Shady Characters by Houston, Keith
  • Profiles by Tynan, Kenneth

Rereads (6)

Gene Wolfe died this year, so I reread The Book of the New Sun. Sad to remember there won’t be any new Gene Wolfe novels.

Rereading Declare only a year after reading it the first time was so rewarding that I continued on to reading some other Tim Powers novels.

  • The Anubis Gates by Powers, Tim
  • On Stranger Tides by Powers, Tim
  • Declare by Powers, Tim
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Anderson, Sherwood
  • The Claw of the Conciliator by Wolfe, Gene
  • Shadow & Claw by Wolfe, Gene

The future of media

Even as it shrinks, the national media is reorganizing around a social media–to–cable news pipeline of daily outrage. It is shedding the skin of its once-sacred “view from nowhere” objectivity and embracing the benefits of cruder ideologies. It wants eyeballs, but it doesn’t want to pay for material. Why do that when a generation of strivers will do it for free, or close to it? … [O]ne vision of the journalist of the future [will be] self-employed in an Uberized model that gobbles up inflammatory content and takes no responsibility for how it’s gathered. These media workers will be ambitious, ideological, incurious, self-promoting, social media native, willing to force the story, and very, very vulnerable.

— Joseph Bernstein, from this article