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A Field Guide to Lies in a Lie-Driven World


About a dozen years ago, smack-dab in the middle of the Bush II administration’s misadventure in Iraq, a friend despairingly said to me, “I feel like everything I’m being told is a lie.” I shared her despair, which has, of course, returned—on steroids—during this year’s fraught, overwrought presidential campaign. I’m agitated hourly (no, make that every waking minute) by the thought that a shameless liar of Donald Trump’s magnitude might conceivably be elected to the world’s most powerful post, but, frankly, I’m also irritated by Hillary Clinton’s unbecoming lapses from the truth and her incurable (it appears) penchant for secrecy. So I was looking forward to reading Daniel J. Levitin’s new book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, hoping it might offer an antidote to the poisonous sea of mis- and disinformation we’re all drowning in. Well, I’m still flailing my arms and gasping for air. Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t a bad book, nor a worthless one. But it isn’t what it says it is. In fact, its title is an instance of false advertising: Far from providing “a field guide to lies” in the “information age,” Levitin has written a primer on widely applicable critical-thinking principles that can be used not just to dissect and refute the falsehoods mouthed by unscrupulous politicians or the creative fabulations of conspiracy theorists (like moon-landing deniers) and internet deceivers, but also to evaluate the unintentionally misleading statistics that regularly appear in news reports—and that can even help people making complicated health-care decisions to map out a game plan. In short, there’s much too much—about matters that are distantly connected, if at all—crammed into this little book. Levitin at one point offers tips on recognizing fallacious “apples to oranges” comparisons without apparently realizing that his Field Guide is a mixed-up greengrocer’s bin of several unrelated fruit varieties. That said, Levitin does give some clear guidance on spotting political dissembling—zeroing in, for example, on a poster-size graph wielded by Utah Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz during a 2015 House committee grilling of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. The graph, which appears in a video of the hearing, seems to show that the number of Planned Parenthood–provided abortions rose dramatically from 2006 to 2013 while cancer-prevention procedures performed by the organization fell equally dramatically during the same period. The problem isn’t with the stats that appear on the graph—those, in fact, are accurate—but rather with the graph’s completely misleading visual, which bolstered Chaffetz’s contention that Planned Parenthood was becoming little more than an abortion mill. As Levitin demonstrates with an alternative, non-misleading graph, cancer screenings and other preventive procedures had indeed fallen off at Planned Parenthood clinics, but their number in 2013 was still three times larger than the number of abortions performed. But back to the book’s flaws: Levitin devotes the first half of A Field Guide to examining how statistics, probabilities and visual representations of data can be misused (intentionally or not) and misinterpreted. That’s all well and good, but, unfortunately, the text often sails well above the head of a smart-enough but somewhat innumerate person such as myself—a real drawback, since I’d guess that readers like me are Levitin’s intended audience. This problem is, I think, partly editorial: For example, in his discussion of the misuse of averages, Levitin uses the terms mean, median and mode without ever defining them. And his discussion of graphs refers frequently to the x and y axes—sending my mind scrambling back to dim memories of high school math—without ever stating that the x axis is the horizontal one and the y axis the vertical. A sensible editor would have fixed this stuff. A Field Guide to Lies is, in places, an entertaining read, especially in the four case studies Levitin presents near the book’s end. The most engaging of these stories concerns Levitin’s effort to figure out whether a 2008 feat performed by illusionist-stuntman David Blaine was an actual endurance test or a meticulously staged trick. In the feat, which was broadcast on Oprah, Blaine held his breath underwater for more than 17 minutes—then a world record. (It has since been surpassed.) Interviewing medical specialists and professional magicians and collecting reams of evidence, Levitin finally admits that he’s stumped; even the most rigorous application of critical-thinking principles cannot help him discern whether Blaine is a superhuman athlete or an extremely talented fraud. So there are limits to critical thinking’s power. One important limitation that, curiously, goes unmentioned in Levitin’s book is this: How can you persuade idiots—people, that is, who show absolutely no interest in using their rational faculties—to abandon their idiocy and begin thinking critically? That’s the difficulty America—and, indeed, the world—is facing this political season. And that’s why Levitin’s book cannot help alleviate my despair. The author, finally, is preaching to the choir, while just outside the church, a barbarian horde is bellowing a very different, beastly tune.

by James Waller

Sep 27, 2016

Gene’s Way, Gene’s Steps, Gene’s Style: How Debbie Reynolds Learned to Dance in Three Months for Singin’ in the Rain


Arguably the greatest movie musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain is celebrated as much for its songs and dances as its behind-the-scenes lore: Gene Kelly’s 101-degree fever while filming the title number; Donald O’Connor taking to his bed with exhaustion after filming “Make ’Em Laugh”—only to have to reshoot it days later due to a camera malfunction; Debbie Reynolds rehearsing until her feet bled. But of all the “making of” stories, the most impressive is that Reynolds, only 19 at the time, learned to dance in just three months to play leading lady Kathy Selden. A novice dancer with a gymnastics background, Reynolds entered a period of intense rehearsal in April 1951 to reach the level of Kelly and O’Connor, dancers who had been performing professionally for years. For eight to 10 hours a day, Kelly rehearsed with choreographic assistants Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney and tap teacher Ernie Flatt—with Kelly popping in occasionally to check on her progress. Intimidated by Kelly’s notorious short temper (“When it breaks,” Reynolds said, “it’s like a giant explosion and all hell is let loose”), Reynolds routinely faltered. She lost confidence and often burst into tears of frustration and exhaustion. A stern taskmaster, Kelly wouldn’t allow Reynolds to leave until she was “step perfect.” As co-director, choreographer and star of the film, Kelly’s artistic vision and style—a unique amalgamation of ballet, tap and jazz—drove the production. Even Cyd Charisse, a classical ballet dancer, and O’Connor, a self-proclaimed hoofer who had been performing since childhood, had to adjust to Kelly’s standard. As Reynolds later recalled, it was “Gene’s way, Gene’s steps, Gene’s style.” Reynolds, in her first leading role, had a lot to learn in a very short period of time. To dance with both Kelly and O’Connor in “Good Morning,” a number featuring incredibly intricate footwork and precise unison, Reynolds needed to “be equal to them.” Dancing alone, any mistake or subtle deviation might not be noticeable. In unison, every error becomes magnified. Ever a perfectionist, Kelly demanded the same impeccability from his dancers, and, for Reynolds—young and inexperienced as she was—the pressure of the situation overwhelmed her. After one particularly rough rehearsal, Reynolds was found sobbing underneath a piano by another dancer who happened to be walking by. Asked why she was crying, Reynolds blubbered that the whole process was killing her. The man assured her that death was not imminent and learning to dance was always hard—but necessarily so. “If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right,” he said. The dancer turned out to be Fred Astaire, who was working in the rehearsal room next door on his film The Belle of New York. “He invited me in to watch him rehearse,” Reynolds recalled. “Nobody got to watch him dance, and he let me watch him until he was just red in the face, and it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent, but you have to keep striving.” Astaire encouraged Reynolds not to give up, but rather embrace the challenge. What Reynolds had witnessed was a lifting of the dancer’s mask. Astaire and Kelly did what all great dancers do: make the difficult look effortless. Such ability belies the hard work, precision and skill that go into the creation of each number. If a dancer were to communicate the difficulty of the act to an audience, its essence would disappear—the narrative quality, the emotional communication, the expressive capacity of the dance would shatter. You might as well watch someone working out at the gym. Through the hours of rehearsals and filming (40 takes alone were shot of “Good Morning”—another day that left her with bloody feet), Reynolds achieved something truly remarkable: She danced beautifully. Years later, Kelly praised her hard work and determination: “Debbie was strong as an ox, and…could work for hours. Also she was a great copier, and could pick up the most complicated routines without too much difficulty.” For her part, Reynolds was forever grateful to Kelly. “Gene taught me discipline….He taught me how to be a perfectionist….But at the time I could have done without his perfection.” In one of the last scenes of Singin’ in the Rain, Lina Lamont, the shallow film star whose niggling voice demands overdubbing from Reynolds’s character, addresses “her public” after the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier: “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as if our hard work ain't been in vain for nothing.” Singin’ in the Rain has brought joy into our humdrum lives now for 64 years. And no, Debbie, your hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing. Photo: Everett Collection

by Maureen Maryanski

Sep 23, 2016

This Week, in Limerick: Farewell, Brangelina


Thursday, September 22 Autumnal As we wait for next Monday’s big brawl, Let us sip pumpkin-spice alcohol, Say goodbye to the summer (What a climate-change bummer), And look fearfully forward to fall. Pas Très Jolie It is done. Angelina and Brad Are not one “Brangelina.” It’s sad. Now they’re two. Now they’ve split: Ms. Jolie. Mr. Pitt. No more Pitt-Jolie hyphen. Too bad.

by James Waller

Sep 23, 2016

Snowden: Portrait of a Whistle-Blower


Edward Snowden was the agent behind the 2013 revelations of the National Security Administration’s vast international and domestic spying operation. But Snowden claimed he didn’t want to be the focus of the story. In Laura Poitras’s extraordinary 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, Snowden twice demurs: “I’m not the story here,” he insists, and then, later, “I don’t want to get myself into the issue . . . where it takes away from the stories that are getting out.” Vain wish, that. For of course Snowden was and will ever be the story’s matrix—whistle-blower or traitor, hero or villain, depending on your point of view. Citizenfour’s cinematic power resides in its moles-and-all portrayal of a brilliant young man who is risking everything—career, love, freedom, possibly even his life—to bring to light the U.S. government’s limitless, unconstitutional invasion of privacy. Poitras captures Snowden at the very time of crisis, when he’s holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room, pouring out his soul and opening the trove of top-secret information he’s stolen to the filmmaker and her collaborator, journalist Glenn Greenwald. It’s terrifying—not least because the viewer, like Snowden himself, can’t be sure that CIA/NSA thugs won’t bust down the door at any moment. Citizenfour is the rare film that intensifies the way you look at the world; I remember leaving the theater with my personal paranoia thrumming full throttle. The first thing that needs to be said about Oliver Stone’s new biopic, Snowden, is that it’s a much more conventional piece of filmmaking than Citizenfour. The second thing is that, despite itself, it’s pretty damned good. Director Stone (who cowrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) uses the Hong Kong interviews Snowden gave to Poitras (played by Melissa Leo) and Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) as a fulcrum, fleshing out the story of Snowden’s life and political evolution through a series of flashbacks that begin in 2004, when 21-year-old Ed (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a U.S. Army Reservist trying to make it into the Special Forces. When two broken legs force him to give up on that dream, he decides to use his substantial intellectual talent to help his country in other ways, training with the CIA and then taking a series of intelligence jobs that lead him, finally, to an “infrastructure analyst” post with NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the NSA’s regional operations center in Oahu, Hawaii. There, his top-level security clearance enables him to access all the classified information he’ll eventually divulge. From left: Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto. Photo by Jurgen Olczyk /© Open Road Films / Courtesy Everett Collection Meanwhile, while he’s climbing the career ladder, Ed falls head over heels for a young woman named Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). In Stone’s telling, Ed’s love and concern for Lindsay are integral to his fateful decision. As the moral quandaries imposed by his job become more intolerable, Ed’s worries mount that his and Lindsay’s relationship—repeatedly damaged by the pressures of Ed’s work, which he can never talk to her about—cannot be sustained, and also that Lindsay is under NSA surveillance and herself in grave danger. Frankly, I found Snowden’s romantic story line just a tad too pat: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl (a couple of times), and then (you guessed it) boy gets girl back again. And other aspects of Snowden’s plot—so laden with ironies and foreshadowings—seemed Hollywood-picture artifices that just couldn’t be true of any actual human life. And yet. And yet. Edward Snowden’s adventure is remarkable, almost mythic in its fatedness. In an early scene in Snowden, Ed tells a CIA interviewer that Joseph Campbell is one of his influences, and in reality Snowden’s life has played out like one of those classic heroic quests Campbell spent his career analyzing and celebrating. A young, weakling genius—so sweetly naive he’s dubbed “Snow White” by a sarcastic coworker—undergoes a series of excruciating trials that strengthen him and ultimately guide him to sacrifice his very self, if need be, to save the world. Whew. Whether the world has in any meaningful sense been made better by Snowden’s act is, of course, untellable. Various measures purporting to limit the U.S. intelligence services’ power and reach have been enacted, but I don’t think I’m alone in assuming that the government can still find out anything and everything about anyone and everyone. But even if the hero’s sacrifice is futile, his (or her) story must be told. And Stone, despite the screenwriting contrivances, tells Snowden’s story well, aided by a sensational performance by his lead actor. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t look at all like Edward Snowden, and, except for era-specific changes of eyewear, doesn’t try to. But he exactingly reproduces Snowden’s peculiar, and peculiarly memorable, voice. At once halting and mellifluous, monotonous and grandiloquent, it’s a voice that seems as self-taught as Snowden’s erudition. (Snowden made it into intelligence analysts’ top echelon without ever graduating from high school.) Gordon-Levitt inhabits the character so absolutely that it isn’t as jarring as it ought to be when, near the end of the film, the real-life Snowden takes over the role. (Whether putting Ed Snowden himself into the film was a wise directorial choice is another question.) The other actors, as critics say, acquit themselves well—especially Woodley, whom I’ve loved ever since she played George Clooney’s brattish teenage daughter in The Descendants, and Nicolas Cage, who plays a cranky, bitter old fart of a teacher at the CIA’s spy academy. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans is appropriately scary as Snowden’s CIA mentor, Corbin O’Brian—a Big Brother whose repulsive self-confidence dissolves when his favorite little puppet betrays him. And Snowden’s special effects are clever and well deployed—especially the psychedelic montages that accompany Ed’s epileptic seizures. (Were you aware that Snowden has epilepsy? Neither was I.) Mythic tales are supposed to remain thrilling no matter how familiar they may be, and perhaps the best aspect of Stone’s film is that it manages to sustain and even amplify the suspense throughout, despite the fact that we all know how Snowden’s story will turn out (well, at least up to his current comfortable exile in Moscow). That’s partly a function of Stone’s use of voice-over, a narrative stratagem that generally fails more often than it succeeds. But Gordon-Levitt’s preternatural impersonation of Snowden’s bland, self-conscious and fretful vocal style conveys the fear and dismay he almost perpetually suffered, and aside from William Holden’s narration in Sunset Boulevard, I can’t think of another movie in which voice-over has worked so well. So do go see Snowden. And then join the call urging President Obama to grant Ed Snowden a pardon. Which won’t ever happen. Unless, of course, the magical trajectory of Mr. Snowden’s life should take yet another astonishing turn. Photos: Everett Collection

by James Waller

Sep 22, 2016

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