Nine, the Movie

Dave and I watched Nine a couple nights ago on DVD. We’d seen it when it first came out in the theaters and it was something of a disappointment to me, because I like the musical a lot and I thought that, while a lot of things in the movie were terrific, there were also a lot that seemed clunky. There were a lot of changes I couldn’t figure out the reason for, and while God knows I’m not going to be the one to object to taking liberties with a work you’re adapting, it didn’t seem like the changes were as good as what was being left out, which is a problem.

I’m also all too aware, though, that I come to the movie with all sorts of preconceptions based on my knowledge of the stage musical, and it’s easy not to see what’s really up there on the screen when I’m comparing against my memories.

I liked the movie better the second time, though I still don’t think it works all the way through. What seems to me to be the biggest problem is that the makers of the movie want to tell a somewhat different story than the stage musical does, in which the central character has a somewhat different struggle. This oversimplifies things but it seems to me that, in a nutshell, Guido’s problems in the stage musical come from his wanting everything indiscriminately, and not being able to make choices and decide what’s most important to him, and let go of the lesser things in order to hold on to the important ones; whereas the story in the movie seems to be trying to tell the story of Guido as an artist who has so mixed up his own identity with his fame and success, and is so frightened of losing it, that he’s gotten stuck trying to recreate his earlier successes and is afraid to take chances, afraid to be authentic and spontaneous not just in his art but in his personal life.

This is, in my opinion, an absolutely terrific and completely valid take on the story and the character. In some ways it’s a better, sharper approach to the story and character than the stage musical takes. The moviemakers dropped a lot of terrific songs from the stage musical, and added a few new ones, and I think that’s appropriate; but it would have been even better if they’d dropped more and added more new ones. The problem is that in too many cases the points that the songs are making are not central to the story any more, they’re just diversions, and the points that are central to the story — as it is now being told in this movie — are made in the dialogue instead.

That puts all the weight in the wrong places. In a musical, the songs seize all the attention, all the focus, all the emphasis. They can’t help but do that. So you want to make use of the songs to emphasize whatever it is that is most important for the audience to notice and understand and concentrate on in order to follow the story and be caught up by it and moved by it.

Many times while watching Nine I found myself thinking, why did they keep this song from the stage musical when it no longer has an important function in the story as it’s being told here? “Guido’s Song” for example is shoehorned into a new situation, the character’s inner thoughts at a bullshit press conference, and while the situation really does cry out for a song for Guido at this point, and while “Guido’s Song” is a brilliant piece of character drawing, it’s drawing a different character from a different story, not the Guido we need to understand here, as this movie is telling this story.

Similarly, the thread of the story in the stage version that gives the “Folies Bergère” number its reason for being has been entirely scrapped. In the stage version, this number presents a hilariously inappropriate suggestion (that Guido should make a movie musical) from a producer who is entirely unsympathetic to Guido’s work, but because Guido has signed a contract, he has to find a way to deal with it — how he tries to do this is an important thread in the stage version. In the movie, though, this song doesn’t come from the producer (and in any case the character of the producer is completely changed); the song is presented as a sympathetic suggestion from Guido’s costume designer, who is a good friend, and it’s framed so that the suggestion is not that he should make a musical specifically, but that he should more generally include more simple entertainment in his movies. It’s turned into a really fabulous musical number on the screen, too, and yet in its attractive new context it’s really just a big red herring. This long, wonderful, compelling musical number inevitably focuses our attention on the question of whether this advice would in fact give Guido a way out of his problems, and it leads us to expect that the story ahead of us is going to turn on this issue in some way. But as it happens, this is a false expectation; the problems that arise to torment Guido as the story develops are not connected with this issue at all, if we try to understand them as being connected with this issue we will end up bewildered, and in fact neither the costume designer nor anybody else ever brings this particular issue up again.

So why go to so much trouble to focus our attention on a side issue? It’s like taking highlighter pens and using them to highlight the digressions on the page rather than the main points. Even if the colors are beautiful, the highlighting makes it harder, not easier, for a reader to get focused on what’s really important.

I also found myself several times listening to a few lines of dialogue and thinking, There! That’s the main point of this scene, right there! Why isn’t this what the song in this scene is about?

So, as much as I love the stage version, and as little of the score as they kept, I found myself thinking by the end of the movie the second time around that they should have kept even less, and written a lot more new songs tailored to this new story about Guido that they wanted to tell.


Someone on the WELL recently lamented the common “misuse” of the word enormity to mean greatness in size, when it “really” means great wickedness.

I’ve heard that one a thousand times, of course. And the debate that always follows is between those who, on the one hand, say that a word means whatever the majority of people commonly use it to mean and you can’t stop language from changing; and those who, on the other hand, say that an error is still an error even if it’s widely enough used to make it into Merriam-Webster and fastidious writers should want to be careful about preserving these nuances of meaning.

After another go-round of the debate a couple of years ago, though, I took the time to look the word up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and then did a quick Google search to get some context about the authors and works the OED cited. And as a result, I’ve become an advocate of using enormity in just the way my online buddy was deploring. In fact, I feel it would be unfastidious not to. Here’s why:

Going by etymology alone, enormity looks like it should mean simply the state or quality (-ity) of being out of (e-) the norm. And sure enough, if you look up the word in the OED you find that it meant no more than that in some of its earliest known uses, which were in the 1500s. The OED also has citations from as late as 1865 in which the word plainly carries no connotation of moral evil.

Sure, right from the start the word was sometimes used to connote wickedness, especially in religious writing. And it would seem — judging from the citations themselves and from what I could find out about the works they are from — it picked up this connotation from an assumption that anything that is out of the norm is, perforce, wicked.

But it seems not to have occurred to people that the word always had to have a moral connotation, that the word could in fact have no other connotation but that of wickedness, until the Victorian era — a time that, after all, gave us the obsessive-compulsive codification of English grammar (forced into models based on Greek and Latin) and the invention of hundreds of previously unheard-of and yet suddenly inflexible rules of English usage.

Not just grammar, of course. It was a time possessed by a popular mania for turning every aspect of life — meals, clothing, conversation, public speaking, friendship, love, grief — into a test of how well you’d memorized the persnickety details of the appropriate manual of behavior. The Victorians could detect grave deficiencies of character in anyone who merely used the wrong fork, wrote on paper of the wrong dimensions, wore the wrong colors of clothing at the wrong time of day or year or life, or paid one’s visits to one’s neighbors in the wrong order. And someone who lived altogether the wrong sort of life, not just because he or she had gotten confused about the Rules of Decent Society but actually didn’t care about following them at all, was indeed generally regarded as wicked.

Well, screw that thinking. Given that as a writer and editor I long ago decided that I see nothing wrong with split infinitives and sentences that end with prepositions and using leg instead of limb when referring to a person and dozens of other “rules” of English invented by the Victorians; given that I am deeply opposed to the idea that just to be outside the norm is to be wicked; and given that the more I look at it, the more it looks like what is usually presented to us as being the “older” and more correct meaning of the word is actually just a blip in the history of its usage, I have decided that I am fine with using enormity to mean anything that is far outside the norm, whether it is in size or sinfulness or anything else.

Feeling Human Again

I had a bad night last night. Got to bed around 10:30 feeling relatively good, at least in comparison to the last few days. The achiness and sniffles were pretty mild, and I was feeling hopeful that one more good night’s sleep would get rid of them.

But then I woke up at 12:30 a.m. with a really bad headache. I took some painkiller and made myself some echinacea tea and took a hot bath and a lot of the usual routine, and it took till about 3:00 a.m. (which isn’t unusually long-lasting for one of these) to alleviate the headache enough that I could fall asleep with the help of a sleeping pill.

But I let my office know I’d be late (they’re used to my occasional latenesses two or three times a year due to these headaches in the middle of the night) and slept in an extra two hours, and now I’m feeling really pretty good. As I type this, a very mild and foggy remnant of the headache lingers on, and I imagine a cup of coffee or strong tea will take care of that. I’m probably better rested than I’ve been in months, really given how much I’ve slept in the last four days. So, knock wood, I think this bout is over.

Out Cold

I’ve been laid low since Friday by a pretty bad cold — mild but persistent fever, awful achiness and hypersensitivity all over, runny nose. I usually get over this sort of thing in a day with huge doses of vitamin C (1000 mg every hour), painkiller as needed, and sleeping until it goes away. This one, though, has hung on for four days now, despite plenty of the C and plenty of sleep. The fever was finally gone this morning, but I’m still achy all over and still sniffly.

I haven’t accomplished all that much this weekend other than reading in bed (I’m about two-thirds through James Branch Cabell’s Cream of the Jest right now), doing an old Listener puzzle (which I downloaded from the archive after this week’s turned out to be so easily finished), taking baths, drinking hot tea and various fizzy powdered remedies dissolved in hot water, and a lot of napping. I did get it together enough yesterday do get outside for a little bit and do a little laundry and bake a quiche for dinner, but even that little bit of exertion was about all I could manage the whole day.

Dave and I had planned to go back to see Giant Bones one more time this weekend before it closed, but obviously I was in no shape to do that, dammit. I’d really have liked to see it again, but oh well. We did stay up last night and watch Jacques Tati’s last movie, Trafic on DVD. I’m a big fan of Tati’s movies but I’d never seen this one before this; it seemed to me to be one of his weakest, right down there with Jour de Fête. Some funny scenes, but it never really seemed to take off.

Of course, both Jour de Fête and Play Time seemed that way to me the first time I saw each of them, and yet on repeated viewings Jour de Fête never got any better while Play Time now seems to me to be a masterpiece. So who knows, maybe I’ll like Trafic better if I get around to watching it again.

Home Sick

Staying home from work today with a cold and slight fever. As of 1:30 I’m still in bed, having done nothing but alternately sleep and work on today’s Listener puzzle (which I’ve finished). Still achy, so about to roll over and nap some more.

Slick Investment

Scott Adams in the Wall Street Journal a week and a half ago:

When I heard that BP was destroying a big portion of Earth, with no serious discussion of cutting their dividend, I had two thoughts: 1) I hate them, and 2) This would be an excellent time to buy their stock. And so I did. Although I should have waited a week.

People ask me how it feels to take the side of moral bankruptcy. Answer: Pretty good! Thanks for asking. How’s it feel to be a disgruntled victim?

Robins on the Grass

The park near my work, where I walk on my breaks, is unusally active with birds today, mostly robins but also a few sparrows and jays. They’re hopping on the ground and swooping from branch to branch all over the place, more so than usual. Not sure why. Doesn’t look like they’re gathering nesting material or hunting for bugs or anything practical like that, at least not that I can see. Maybe just goofing off and enjoying the nice day.


I’m pretty close to finishing this week’s Listener puzzle, called “Refrain”. Each clue, when solved, contributes a letter to a line from a song, followed by its source. I figured out the line after solving only about a quarter of the clues, from having just enough letters to guess what the source was. Googling the source and the one probable word I had of the line gave me the song.

Eight of the crossings “clash”, which is to say the across and down words have different letters and we have to figure out which to put into the grid. I think I know the criterion, but if I’m right about that, one of the clashes I’ve found could be resolved either way and I’ll have to figure it out from the fact given that the eight unused letters spell out a word related to the song.

I got off to a shaky start because the first five crossings I found included three of the eight clashes, which seemed like long odds and I thought something must be wrong. But I looked over my few answers up to that point and they looked right, so I pushed ahead and everything has worked out so far. Now, as I write this, I have two unsolved clues and two undiscovered clashes.

Question Two: What Rule of Sanskrit Grammar Is Being Violated in the Following Line of Javascript?

A question in a physics textbook I’m looking at:

A psychic conducts seances in which the spirits of the dead speak to the participants. He says he has special psychic powers not possessed by other people, which allow him to “channel” the communications with the spirits. What part of the scientific method is being violated here?

The answer is supposed to be that the results aren’t reproducible by others, but unless the psychic is claiming to be doing a scientific experiment, how is any part of scientific method being violated?

If the reasoning were valid, it would be valid even if we changed the nature of the claim itself. So rewrite it a little and see if it still makes sense:

A singer holds concerts in which words sung to musical accompaniment convey emotion to the participants. She says she has special performance powers not possessed by other people, which allow her to move the participants to a “standing ovation” whenever she sings a particular combination of words and notes bearing the title “People”. What part of the scientific method is being violated here?

Go Back to Bed and Wait for Lunch, For Example

Gorge-raising quote of the day, for me anyway, from an article in today’s Contra Costa Times about french toast:

“There’s nothing better than food you can pour syrup on.”

I can in fact think of any number of things I’d rather do first thing in the morning than take into my mouth a forkful of anything covered with syrup.