Twilight

In theaters.

Thus far, I’ve managed to avoid reading Stephenie Meyer’s vampire series. I know enough about the books—and about myself—to know that I would really dislike them, and although that kind of makes me want to read them anyway so that I can make rude comments about them, I try to avoid caving into that perverse impulse.

Unfortunately for my attempts at being a better person, my fourteen-year-old niece mentioned over Thanksgiving that she really wanted to see Twilight, the new film adaptation of the first book (she’s read them all), and I couldn’t resist offering to take her. I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, accompanying a genuinely besotted fan so that I could sink my teeth into the object of her affection, but I think she suspected the truth (she kept glancing at me in the theater to gauge my reaction), and she got a free ticket out of the trip, and of course I love her and would never be rude to her.

Plus, truth be told, I didn’t hate the movie as much as I had expected. Director Catherine Hardwicke makes the most of the Pacific Northwest setting, giving the whole film a rainy, verdant beauty. In a few scenes, notes of levity manage to sneak into the otherwise morose story and charm me in spite of myself. And finally, I underestimated how endearing Brooke’s enthusiasm would be. I couldn’t share her love of Edward and Bella, but her excitement was mildly contagious. In my own way, I enjoyed the movie as a weird hybrid of melodrama, comedy, and aunt-niece bonding.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Penderecki’s Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra

The New York Philharmonic on Thursday, November 20.

After the small ensemble finished one of Bach’s oft-performed Brandenburg concertos, Sean turned and wryly murmured in my ear, “With a couple more rehearsals, they might have had it.” I stifled a giggle and gave him a mock-reproving frown, but I knew what he meant. The featured violas were dragging, and the tuning was off; the ensemble simply never felt like a cohesive whole. Ironically, the rarely performed Penderecki cello concert that followed was practically perfect: taut and energetic and immaculately synchronized.

One could blame the violists for the disappointing Brandenburg (Violists are the butt of many an orchestral joke. For example, how do you get two violists to play in unison? Answer: Shoot one of them.), but I suspect the main problem is that all the musicians “know” that concerto. They’ve played it countless times and most likely take it for granted that they can play it well again without too much effort. The Penderecki, on the other hand, is unfamiliar and obviously difficult and thus justifies extensive rehearsal time. It’s not an unusual scenario: Too often it’s the relatively easy, familiar pieces that trip you up.

Quantum of Solace

In theaters.

In a 2007 Associated Press article that endeared him to me forever, Matt Damon was quoted derisively contrasting the classic James Bond with Jason Bourne, his own franchise character:

[Bond is] an imperialist and a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it. Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government; the government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her. He’s the opposite of James Bond.

Paul Greengrass, director of the last two Bourne movies, agreed:

[Bond is] an insider. He likes being a secret agent. He worships at the altar of technology. He loves his gadgets. And he embodies this whole set of misogynistic values. He likes violence. That’s part of the appeal of the character. He has no guilt. He’s essentially an imperial adventurer of a particularly English sort. Personally, I spit on those values. I think we’ve moved on a little bit from all that, the martini shaken, not stirred.

I quote Damon and Greengrass at length partly because I love how cutting they are in their assessment of the Bond mythos (“I spit on those values”—wow!) but mainly because I think it’s striking how the Bond reboot, starring Daniel Craig, seems to reflect their critique. I’m not suggesting that the Bond crew is responding specifically to Damon’s and Greengrass’s opinions (the timing is off, for starters). Rather, they seem to have recognized independently just how dated—often offensively so—the character is.

The funny thing is that the new Bond looks a lot like Damon’s Bourne: less quippy and gadget-oriented, at odds with his government, and in love with his dead girlfriend. Personally, I appreciate the change—and I adore Craig’s performance—but is he even Bond anymore? I mean, I shed no tears for the loss of the classic Bond, whom I find tiresome, but for those who did love the old guy, it must be weird to see him so inverted.

Doctor Atomic

The Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, November 15.

The Manhattan Project—specifically the final days at Los Alamos before the testing of the atomic bomb—makes for an odd subject for opera. The drama is there, but it’s an internal, bookish sort of drama with little in the way of action. In the first act, the characters argue about petitions and bad weather. In the second act, they just wait for the explosion.

Composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars, adapting a number of sources, attempt to get at the enormous ethical quandaries that Robert Oppenheimer and his team faced, but the music is poorly served by the tag-team philosophizing. Ultimately, opera is not an intellectual medium but an emotional one. When Adams tries to challenge that, the music often feels empty and scattered and the expressed ideas feel superficial. But when he embraces the emotion—setting aside the historical details and physics jargon and ethical debates in favor of meditating on raw fears about mortality and culpability—Doctor Atomic finally discovers its real power.

Shiba Inu Puppy Cam

So I, like seemingly every other compulsive Internet user, have become semi-obsessed with the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam. I don’t remember which website first sent me there—countless sites have linked to it—but watching the live feed of six roly-poly puppies playing and wrestling and napping in their cozy little crate is now my favorite means of relieving stress or lifting a bad mood or simply killing a minute or two.

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell. Published in 2008.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to stand in line to vote, so the day before, I picked up a copy of The Wordy Shipmates for the queue. As it turns out, my wait was only about thirty minutes, but Sarah Vowell’s short history of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a worthwhile purchase—not to mention oddly appropriate for a post-election cool-down.

Vowell is the best kind of history buff, pulling off the difficult balancing act of placing people within their historical context while holding on to her own values and judgment. In other words, she is fair but not a moral relativist. She neither whitewashes the past nor condemns everyone who wouldn’t fit in at a contemporary urban liberal cocktail party, and she has a real appreciation for the quirks and foibles that transform people from generic historical figures into distinct individuals. Now that I think about it, Vowell is a talented popular historian for the same reason she’s a talented storyteller: she recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human beings.